The year of the watchdog

The year of the watchdog
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In 1778, George Washington’s choice for inspector general of the Continental Army reported for duty at Valley Forge. The hot-tempered Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a former Prussian military officer, helped win the war by identifying and correcting training deficiencies.      

Today, von Steuben’s heirs — the 72 currently serving federal inspectors general — conduct important work identifying waste, fraud and abuse in their respective agencies and arresting and helping convict contractors and federal employees who steal from U.S. taxpayers.

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To this community, this is the Year of the IG — the 40th anniversary of the Inspector General Act of 1978, the law creating this cadre of professional watchdogs whose labors are an important check on the federal bureaucracy.

 

It is vital work. For example, in December the Department of Defense IG identified critical problems with the department’s process for reporting military convictions to the FBI, which would have barred the defendants from owning firearms. Among them was the former airman who killed 26 people in a Texas church last November.  

Last July, the Department of Health and Human Services IG collaborated with law enforcement agencies to charge more than 400 people for falsely billing about $1.3 billion to the Medicare and Medicaid programs.  

And the Department of Justice IG is conducting a sweeping review of the FBI and Justice Department’s actions related to an investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGiuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it Sanders hits 1 million donors Democrats will not beat Trump without moderate policy ideas MORE’s use of a private email server while secretary of state.

The IG shop I have had the honor to lead for the past six years has issued more than 300 reports on the $122 billion Afghanistan reconstruction effort. Among our many findings have been a taxpayer-funded building so poorly constructed its walls literally melted in the rain, and nearly half a billion dollars spent on unsafe aircraft that were scrapped for pennies on the dollar.  

All of this work is necessary and important — but as many have asked me, what does it mean? That’s a valid question. Too often, IG shops, including my own, focus on pinpricks and not the gaping wounds that threaten government programs.  

Common sense tells us that determining effectiveness requires looking at results and outcomes.  We have found that agencies, as well as IGs, spend lots of time counting program inputs such as the amount of money spent, and outputs such as the number of clinics built, but not enough on outcomes and results — the true barometer of success.  

For example, an agency can identify how much it paid to build a clinic, and that the clinic was built, but rarely whether that clinic improved the health of locals. Building a clinic, in and of itself, does not mean the program was a successful use of taxpayer funds, especially if no Afghans use it because there are no doctors, nurses, medicines or electricity.

Many of the problems we’ve identified — poor planning, sloppy procurement, weak oversight — are not unique to the reconstruction effort, but afflict all federal agencies.

Likewise, most challenges we face in Afghanistan and here at home cannot be resolved by a single government agency, but instead require a “whole-of-government” approach. The response to the opioid crisis, for example, involves an array of federal departments and agencies. While almost all IGs are housed within one federal agency, their work should not be isolated from that of other agencies. The independence granted them by the IG Act permits them to broaden their scope and look at how effectively their agency cooperates with others — and to collaborate with other IGs to look into broad issues that are the responsibility of multiple agencies.

This is not an academic exercise. Two of the most significant government reorganizations — that of the Defense Department in 1986, and creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 — occurred only after major bureaucratic failures led to tragedy. If IGs start focusing now on the broader picture of how their agencies function, their recommendations could help avert similar failures in the future.  

Undertaking such work may ruffle some feathers, but IGs should be junkyard dogs, not lap dogs. This, the Year of the IG, is the perfect time for America’s inspectors general to sharpen their teeth and tear into the meatier issues of why many think our government is broken.    

John F. Sopko was appointed Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in 2012. An attorney, he previously served as a congressional investigator and federal prosecutor.