By law, agency inspectors general are given a great deal of independence from pressures from both their agencies and Congress. But to be effective, they need to develop positive relationships with both. Some are more effective than others. What makes the difference?
In January 2015, Michael Horowitz, chair of the cross-agency Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, highlighted “independence” as their most-cherished attribute. But what steps can the IGs, agency heads, and Congress take to make sure that the work of the IGs is not ignored? IGs must cultivate trust, confidence, and respect in order to be listened to – but without surrendering their independence.
A new report for the IBM Center for The Business of Government by Charles Johnson, Kathryn Newcomer, and Angela Allison identify best practices that strike this balance. They conducted confidential interviews with IGs, agency leaders, and Hill staffers to develop some practical recommendations.
Background. Inspectors general have an unusual role in government. They are granted a good deal of independence so they can fearlessly root out waste, fraud, and abuse. In major agencies, they are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. For the most part, they cannot be removed unless they have committed significant transgressions.
IGs offer recommendations for improvement to agency heads, but they have no authority to have them acted upon, other than the pressures created by public and congressional reporting of their findings and recommendations. Congress tracks the effectiveness of the IGs by looking at how many of their recommendations are implemented and how many dollars are saved, so there is some incentive for the IGs to develop a working relationship with agency leaders so the leaders will take action on IG recommendations.
IG Issues with Agencies and the Hill. The authors found that conversations between an IG and their host agency regarding independence “are often framed by previous relationships between their respective offices.” If it had been a concern under a previous IG, then it was higher on the new IG’s agenda than in agencies where IG independence and access to information was the norm. In some cases, this was reflected in formal memos of understanding. In others, it was more of a personal relationship.
The same was true of IG relationships with Congress. In initial meetings, especially with IGs who were Senate-confirmed, the emphasis by congressional staff was on the importance of independence from agency leadership, not expectations that the IGs were to be “agents” of the Congress. Nevertheless, IGs interviewed for the project “indicated that they respond quickly to requests for information or inquiries from congressional contacts.” There were some instances of strained relations with Congress, but these tended to be the exception. A key approach taken by some IGs to keep Congress apprised has been to assign an IG staffer to work with congressional contacts.
Creating Open Lines of Communication. The authors found that “Creating positive relationships in this environment is deemed essential; one IG commented that it is ‘absolutely critical to maintain the confidence of agency leadership and congressional contacts – [this] speaks to the ability to be effective and make a difference.’”
So how do IGs address questions about their legitimate role? How do they address whether they are being too aggressive, too expansive, or are reaching beyond their statutory authority? This gets at timely access to information. For example, in August 2014, forty-seven IGs co-signed a letter to Congress highlighting concerns that they were denied access to information pertinent to investigations they had underway. This isn’t a new concern. Former IGs provided accounts in memoirs about their lack of access, as well.
But are there ways to address these concerns? The authors identified two strategies highlighted by IGs they spoke with: (1) be fair and honest in dealing with their agency and Congress, and (2) produce quality work that is well-received by the agency and Congress. In addition, the authors identified several actions that the IGs, the agencies, and the Congress can each take to build and maintain positive relationships:
- Actions by Inspectors General. IGs should establish ongoing links with Congress, either by dedicating a staffer to be the point person for congressional relations, and where appropriate, “detail” an IG staffer to congressional committees to provide support. They should also ensure their own staffs reach out to agency staff in field offices and mid-level officials in their host agency in advance of any audit activity to discuss the role of the IGs so there is a clear understanding, and to solicit suggestions regarding potential IG activities. In many agencies, the IGs meet one-on-one with the agency head in weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly meetings to exchange information.
- Actions by Agency Leaders. Agency leaders should designate a point person to work with their IGs during audits to ensure clear communications and appropriate access to information, and afterwards to follow up on open recommendations.
- Actions by Congressional Staffs. Congressional staffs should maintain open lines of communication with IGs that have oversight of programs these staffs and their Members care about. They encourage periodic meetings with IGs to discuss major projects and ongoing challenges.
In the end, expectations of maintaining a balance between both independence and a positive relationship with agencies and Congress can create cross-cutting pressures for IGs, especially when their independence might be compromised, or at least perceived by others to be compromised. Their challenge is to walk this tight rope successfully – and it will take all three institutions to make it happen.