When inspectors general catch "bad guys," they win plaudits from legislators and the press, and they please voters and taxpayers. Approval of this kind generates powerful incentives to do more of the same. The public and lawmakers continue to support this "compliance monitoring," to the point that one agency head was reputed to have said, "I have more people watching than doing."
I am not about to deny the value of this kind of work; although I never served as an inspector general, I did a good deal of it. But the mission of an IG also should include "capacity-building." Building service-delivery capacity across the governmental enterprise -- whether with enhanced or additional staff, training, or hard or soft infrastructure -- requires more taxpayer dollars. Legislators and taxpayers resist, resent or ignore recommendations for spending for capacity-building. IGs are encouraged to stick to catching bad guys and discouraged from seeking support for increased capacity.
But the two are intertwined. When legislatures refuse to provide sufficient funding for agencies to do their jobs properly, bureaucrats get discouraged. Some, indeed, despairing of ever achieving the noble goals of public service for which they entered government in the first place, decide that they may as well focus on feathering their own nests or gaming the system to make it appear that services are being delivered that in fact aren't. So the cycle begins: IGs find more wrongdoing; the press reports that another dishonest or incompetent government employee has been caught; trust in government declines further; resistance to taxation increases; funding for agency capacity declines; agency morale plummets.
To see this process in action, one need look no further than the current scandal embroiling the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. The report of the Veterans Affairs IG focused on VA bureaucrats who concealed the fact that veterans have been enduring vastly excessive waits before they can get medical attention. Congress and the press energetically criticized the VA and ultimately forced the resignation of veterans secretary Eric Shinseki.
But what is the real scandal? It is that in the face of fervent oratorical support for veterans from virtually every sector of American society, and especially from politicians in Congress, the nation simply does not spend enough money on the V.A. to assure anything close to an adequate supply of doctors to provide medical care for veterans.
It is, of course, not only the VA who suffers this problem at the federal level. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration never has enough inspectors to assure safe work sites --ostensibly its mission. Amtrak cannot hope to provide adequate train service, much less on a level anywhere close to that of the high-speed rail systems of Europe and Asia. The Food and Drug Administration for the most part must rely on drug tests performed by the companies that profit by selling those drugs. The list goes on and on.
For some Americans, this might not seem like a big issue. The very rich can avoid reliance on public services. They can live in gated communities for protection if the police force is inadequate; send their children to private schools if public education is inadequate; take private airplanes and limousines if Amtrak and public transit are inadequate. As they abandon public services, the political support for those services diminishes, so funding and the quality of those services further declines. The prospect for most of the public will be subjection to public services of wretchedly poor quality. Even the better-off will eventually suffer from poor environmental quality and other ills that cannot be contained within the ranks of the less-fortunate.
Here is where the particular role of inspectors general is so important. Of course, IGs must continue to catch the bad guys. This effort will continue to win public approval. This also means, however, that IGs will have unusual credibility with the public.
IGs should accept a new and very difficult mission, to spend part of their "political capital," or credibility, in teaching the public that the services they value -- from education to health care to defense to transportation -- are really provided through taxpayer support and are threatened by the failure to provide adequate support.
Inspectors general must become Jeremiahs for our era, warning that failure to pursue the common good -- defined in very real terms as willingness to sacrifice additional tax dollars -- will destroy American society as we know it. They will face a long and uphill battle, but protecting and defending good government warrants the struggle.
This column is adapted from a presentation given recently at Columbia University Law School for the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity.