The vast U.S. federal government contains no shortage of regulators and overseers who are involved in many aspects of American business and life. But while these people watch out for potential misconduct in areas such as agriculture, commerce, or elections, a new report from the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) asks the question: Where are the watchdogs who are supposed to be watching the watchdogs?
On Wednesday, POGO released “Where Are All the Watchdogs?”, an investigative project tracking vacancies in the offices of statutory inspectors general at federal agencies. At launch, the report found 12 vacant IG seats (out of a total of 73), ranging from spots that have been open for less than two weeks to one—at the U.S. Department of State—that has been unoccupied since January of 2008.
The nonpartisan POGO clearly does not see the IG vacancy rate as good news. “As the government looks for savings and as public confidence in government is historically low, it is inexcusable that we have so many inspector general vacancies,” said POGO investigator Jake Wiens.
In an interview with CorpCounsel.com, Wiens pointed out that there are two main variants in IG vacancies: those few that lack an IG simply because no one has been hired for the job; and the larger cohort in which the position requires the President to nominate an inspector general and the Senate to confirm the nominee. “Sometimes it gets a bit political and the Senate wants to oppose the nomination,” he said, “and sometimes there’s a legitimate issue with the nominee, and you have to go back to the drawing board.”
But in the case of the State Department, Wiens says it’s “absolutely egregious” that the IG position has been open for more than four years without a nominee even being put forward.
So why is this a big deal? Some of the agencies called out by POGO have faced investigations without the benefit of an independent IG’s investigation, which can defuse charges of political bias or other issues that may arise during a partisan Congressional investigation. The U.S. Department of Justice—which has been facing Congressional investigation into its controversial “Fast and Furious” operation—has been without an inspector general since January 28, 2011, with President Obama’s July 2011 nominee for the position, Michael Horowitz, yet to be confirmed. “If members of Congress or the public are going to push for an investigation into high-ranking officials committing misconduct, it only works if all sides think the investigation is independent and credible,” Wiens said.
The POGO report also identifies federal inspectors general as key figures in stopping government waste and misconduct, with the potential to save taxpayers billions of dollars each year. Wiens cited a Government Accountability Office report [PDF] that, for fiscal year 2009, projected $43.3 billion in potential savings from audits and investigations conducted by IGs, which adds up to a likely cost savings of up to $18 for every dollar spent on an IG office.
“They’re important because accountability is important,” he said. “IGs exist within agencies, but they’re independent, so they can provide an objective look at policies and procedures.”
Between the public accountability benefit of an inspector general who can conduct a thorough, independent investigation into the conduct of officials at a government agency and the potential to cut down on fraud and waste, “IGs are an incredible investment,” he says.
The POGO project is keeping track of each IG vacancy, measuring the length of vacancy and updating any progress made with a nominee—with the idea that shining a light on these empty positions will spur action. “Were really hoping that all government officials make it a priority to ensure that all of these vacant positions get filled with qualified candidates,” Wiens said.
See also: “The Friends and Enemies of SEC Inspector General David Kotz,” CorpCounsel, November 2011.