President Obama announced soon after taking office that holding government accountable while cutting waste and mismanagement would be key priorities. The White House has taken some valuable steps, such as eliminating low-priority and poorly performing programs, reducing no-bid contracts, bolstering oversight of contractors, reducing improper payments and reviewing IT projects at high risk of failure.
Obama’s focus on accountability and reducing waste, however, has lacked a critical component: a strong commitment to that mission through a robust and empowered contingent of federal inspectors general.
Throughout Obama’s first administration and continuing today, there has been an unacceptable number of critical IG vacancies. Ten agencies are without an IG, including large departments with long histories of mismanagement and waste. These include the Defense, Homeland Security, Interior and Labor departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The State Department has gone the longest of any agency without a Senate-confirmed IG — more than five years. Others awaiting an IG are the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Farm Credit Administration, the Federal Maritime Administration and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
When it comes to holding the government accountable and rooting out waste and mismanagement, IGs are the gold standard.
In 2011 alone, IGs and their staffs identified potential savings totaling almost $94 billion, says the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, an interagency group of IGs.
the lack of an IG does not, of course, stop the work of an IG’s office — acting IGs can and do get much done.
But no acting IG carries the authority of a permanent IG when it comes to taking on highly sensitive cases and pushing back against agency heads, senior administration officials or lawmakers when necessary. Findings and recommendations by a permanent IG carry more weight.
In addition, stability at the top makes IG offices more effective — a permanent IG has more time and incentive to establish a reputation and relationships, develop needed staff skills and strategies and take on longer-term initiatives.
By filling vacant IG positions, the White House can more effectively meet administration goals for better government and achieve results that endure beyond the current term. Yes, it takes time to vet a quality candidate for an IG post. But most IG vacancies have gone on for a year or more, and there is no excuse for further delays in filling these vital positions.
When lawmakers reject an IG candidate — for example, Obama’s nominee for the DHS post, Roslyn Mazer, was on hold for almost a year before her nomination was withdrawn in June in the face of lawmakers’ objections — the White House must quickly come up with another nominee and forcefully push to fill that vacancy.
As 16 bipartisan members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee told Obama in a Jan. 24 letter, the president must move swiftly to fill the remaining open IG positions. Obama should keep in mind that every dollar invested in the IGs yields a return of about $35 in potential savings.
In short, as budgets get leaner and the demands for less waste, fraud and mismanagement intensify, the role of IG offices are certain to get ever more critical.