Among our personal goals in articles we write for Governing and elsewhere is to help readers see the enormous amount of work being done by cities and states to hold themselves accountable to their citizens. Sadly, the default belief among many taxpayers is that their governments are oblivious to the ways services can be delivered more effectively and efficiently. Instead, they are seen as focusing exclusively on how much they should spend and then spending it.

But, as Philip Zisman, executive director of the Association of Inspectors General, assures us, “There is a keen interest at all levels of government to ensure accountability to taxpayers.” Zisman, formerly the inspector general (IG) of Yonkers, says that to do this “more and more governments are turning to the concept of an inspector general.”

Although not every city and state is eager to form IG offices -- New York City leaders, for example, are currently engaged in a pitched debate about the benefits of an IG’s office for the city’s police department -- the trend toward more of them has been steady. The newest statewide IG office was created in Virginia in 2011. Other relatively new IG offices are in South Carolina and Detroit.

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The men and women who populate IG offices have always been great at running investigations and ferreting out simple frauds -- employees who were using municipal credit cards to pay for their daughter’s birthday party and other such flimflammery. But many IG offices go far beyond straightforward fraud and do keenly incisive research and investigation about government accountability in all corners.

For instance, the Chicago IG office recently released reports about animal shelter and animal control operations and grant monitoring and emergency contracting processes. In Massachusetts, recent IG work has included contracting violations at a public school district facilities department and a joint investigation with other law enforcement officials of the director of a housing authority. New York’s Medicaid inspector general has looked into falsified employee credentials, as well as questionable dental payments (fillings for someone without teeth, for example). Under its new IG, who was appointed in mid-2011, the office has also shifted gears to focus more on working with health providers on compliance and system change -- as in a new effort to get nursing home administrators to reduce the use of antipsychotic medications.

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As IG offices are formed, the biggest sticking point appears to be their independence, which is key to their success. “They have to call it like they see it,” Zisman says. Additionally, in the same way as law enforcement offices, it can be critical for IGs to have access to the materials they need to thoroughly investigate issues throughout the city or state.

Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson believes that IGs should have the power to enforce their own subpoenas, something that his office lacks. He also sees it as important that an IG office have authority over its own expenditures. Chicago’s IG office needs mayoral approval for hiring. In the recent past, ordinary turnover reduced staffing to 60 percent simply because city hall did not allow the filling of vacancies.

When we spoke with Ferguson, he said that he and others fear that elected officials create IG offices, often talking up the idea of independent oversight, while still maintaining controls that compromise independence. “Terms like transparency, accountability and oversight,” he says, “are at real risk of becoming hackneyed political terms, bandied about without definition.”

“The term IG is bastardized right now,” he adds. “It needs to be grounded in basic standards.” The point of an IG office is to supply independent, neutral, objective fact gathering and analysis. But if politicians compromise the independence of the office, they are able to cloak themselves in the political mantle of accountability without there being real accountability, Ferguson points out.

In general, a strong and independent IG office should include the following elements:

  • An independent reporting structure: The IG should not report directly to the city council, legislature, mayor, governor or other political figure that may be the subject of a potential investigation.
  • Protected terms of office: These may vary according to the scope of responsibility and the nature of the office, but many observers believe the minimum should be at least four years. Massachusetts recently revised its statutes and provided for five-year terms with the individual being able to hold office for two terms. One benefit of this for Massachusetts is that IG terms don’t necessarily coincide with those of other officials. A governor doesn’t come in and appoint his or her own IG, for instance.
  • Protection of the budget: Some offices provide an IG’s office with a floor for funding -- a minimum percentage of the budget of the jurisdiction. “This would protect an IG from possible reprisals for pursuing an investigation the political powers that be don’t like,” Ferguson says.
  • Protection of the IG: The IG can only be removed for cause (not for causing displeasure to officials who may find that an investigation is not in their best interests).
  • Cooperation agreement: A stipulation that agencies or officials comply with requests, submit documents when asked and don’t interfere with investigations. The ability to issue and enforce subpoenas is also important.