In 1984, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd popularized that line – “Who you gonna call?” – from the theme to “Ghostbusters.” In 2018, however, “if there’s something weird/and it don’t look good,” the safest call may be to an inspector general. From allegations of FBI skullduggery, to accusations of profligate spending by cabinet offices, to theft and corruption surrounding the $126 billion spent on Afghanistan’s reconstruction, the inspector general community is increasingly in the news and relied upon for unvarnished, independent assessments on matters of grave national concern.
While many Americans, including some government officials, don’t know what an inspector general is, the concept is hardly new. Most Offices of Inspectors General were created by Congress in 1978, but the history of IGs goes back to 1778, when George Washington nominated Friedrich von Steuben to the newly created post of Inspector General of the Continental Army.
Von Steuben’s heirs – the 72 serving federal inspectors general – identify waste, fraud, and abuse in their respective agencies, and arrest those who steal from U.S. taxpayers.
This independent work is important – but it is also critical that inspectors general support Congress as it carries out its oversight obligations. Woodrow Wilson wrote that “it is the proper duty of a representative body to look diligently into every affair of government …the informing function of Congress should be preferred even to its legislative function.”
Traditionally, Congress has turned to committee staff and legislative support agencies for expertise. But much has changed on Capitol Hill over the last 40 years. The number of committee staff in the House has declined from 2,000 to 1,100, and from 1,400 to 950 in the Senate since 1979. Congressional support agencies suffered similar cuts. Government Accountability Office staff dropped from 5,300 to 3,000; Congressional Research Service staff was reduced by 28 percent; the Office of Technology Assessment was completely abolished.
As Congress’ internal expertise has declined, the number of think tanks has more than doubled since 1980. Many do great work but, as New York Times and National Public Radio investigations have found, think tanks may be beholden to foreign, corporate or wealthy private donors that may affect their independence and objectivity.
Likewise, as the number of congressional staff has decreased, the number of lobbyists has, unsurprisingly, increased. There are now roughly 12,000 congressional staffers and 11,500 registered lobbyists. Some experts estimate there are as many as 100,000 unregistered lobbyists. Lobbyists are not inherently evil but are, by definition, partial to the causes they are paid to promote.
In 1982, I joined the staff of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations under the chairmanship of then-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). We regularly conducted yearlong, bipartisan inquiries with hundreds of witnesses and multiple depositions and hearings. Given resource constraints, many congressional committees today lack the staff needed to undertake lengthy inquiries of that kind. So where can Congress turn for independent oversight and expertise?
I would argue they can turn to the more than 14,000 staff members of the inspector general community. IGs are charged with identifying waste, fraud and abuse; investigating those who steal from the U.S. government, and recommending ways to improve government efficiency. If that’s not oversight, I don’t know what is.
For example, my little agency, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), has issued more than 300 reports and identified more than $2 billion in savings to the U.S. taxpayer. We’ve reported on a taxpayer-funded building so poorly constructed its walls melted in the rain, and exposed the expenditure of $500 million on transport planes that were so unsafe they were eventually turned into scrap.
Much of our work comes at the direction of Congress, including a bipartisan request from 93 members to investigate U.S. government compliance with human rights laws in Afghanistan, and an ongoing directive to evaluate anti-corruption efforts of the Afghan government.
But as we mark the 40th anniversary of the Inspector General Act, we cannot rest on our laurels. We must identify ways to further innovate if we are to truly remain the change-agents that Congress originally intended and our Nation desperately needs.
For example, the major challenges facing us today – whether health care, data privacy, the opioid crisis or Afghan reconstruction – do not fall within a single agency’s, or IG’s, purview. Should we, therefore, partner more often with other IGs to examine “whole of government” matters that cross jurisdictional boundaries?
Additionally, common sense tells us that determining effectiveness requires looking at results and outcomes. Agencies, as well as IGs, are often good at counting program inputs, such as the amount of money spent, and outputs, like the number of clinics built, but are much weaker at determining a program’s outcome – like whether a clinic improved patient health. Outcomes – not inputs or outputs – are the true barometer of success.
Moving beyond the pinpricks that afflict U.S. government programs in Afghanistan, SIGAR is looking into broader lessons that can be learned from our body of work. To date, we have issued five lessons-learned reports that delve into whether U.S. government-wide programs were effective overall, what factors contributed to program success and failure, and best practices for the future.
In conducting such long-term evaluations, IGs and their staffs have an advantage that congressional staffs often do not – job security. Staff longevity on Capitol Hill is dictated by election outcomes, and even the most experienced staff must focus on the pressing concerns of the day.
Inspectors general undertaking such work may ruffle feathers but, as President Reagan believed, IGs should be junkyard dogs, not lap dogs. This “year of the watchdog” – falling at a time of great demand for oversight and transparency – should drive the IG community to do more to support effective, bipartisan congressional oversight.
Since no one in the executive branch has ever said “Oh great, the IG is here,” Congress also plays an important role in supporting IGs. Protection by Congress (and sometimes from Congress) allows us to do our work with the objectivity and independence that Members of Congress and their constituents rightly demand.
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. This piece is based in part on a presentation made by SIGAR Sopko at a Wayne State University Law School’s Levin Center symposium on "The Role of Inspectors General in Congressional Oversight" on June 13, 2018.