Access to data remains hot button issue for IGs, survey finds

Agency inspectors general are facing a greater pace of change in how they do their oversight work.

The Association of Government Accountants found in its survey of federal IGs  that auditors are struggling to keep up with all the new requirements they must meet.

David Zavada, the director of the IG survey for AGA and a partner with Kearney and Company, said that overwhelming feeling is compounded by the continued challenges of getting information from agencies.

“The bumping up of the authorities within the IG Act with other legislation that restricts IG’s access to all information when conducting their oversight, that issue has really been an energizing issue with in the community and it has brought a lot of the community together, it seems,” Zavada said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “We’ve seen that extend over into some very positive sharing in terms of looking at better ways to share information among common grantees across the government as well as maybe sharing within audit reports by having a common database of all audit reports.”

AGA and Kearney released the third annual survey of federal IGs on Sept. 21.

The IG authorities issue has been a growing concern over the last few years.

It came to a head in August 2014 when 47 agency inspectors general wrote to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee expressing concerns that auditors from the Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Peace Corps faced restrictions on their access to certain records.

A similar issue arose again this summer when Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel decided that IGs now must obtain permission from their agencies before gaining access to certain documents such as grand jury proceedings, wiretaps or credit information.

A group of senators are pushing back against DoJ’s ruling.

Twelve lawmakers from both sides of the aisle filed an amendment to the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2015.

The senators say they discussed the legislative fixes with the inspectors general community, the Justice Department and others to ensure IGs have access to all agency documents.

Zavada said IGs said in the survey that access to all information is critical for them to continue to do independent oversight.

Despite these concerns, the survey found 85 percent of all IGs said their office and their agency have the same view of the authority they need  to carry out their responsibilities. A strong majority of the IGs also said they haven’t had an audit or inspection delayed by more than three months in 2013 or 2014, and would characterize their agency’s response to information requests as almost always timely or somewhat timely.

“By and large what the survey told us is that there is somewhat of a consensus or agreement between management and IGs on what IG authorities are. But in certain cases where the authorities in the IG Act have bumped up against authorities in other legislation it has become an important issue,” Zavada said. “It’s an important issue from a precedent because it could affect the way IGs interact across the board with management.”

Zavada said he was most surprised that the issue around IG authorities remained so prevalent.

He said it came up last year and thought it would diminish over the next year.

Zavada said concerns about their authorities and the need to collaborate within the community were the biggest differences in this year’s survey.

“The IGs are a fiercely independent community. That’s just part of the culture,” he said. “But I think this year it seems to us that in talking with a number of offices that there’s more collaboration, more sharing of information, whether it’s best practices or working on common databases or analytics.”

Respondents offered several suggestions for the Council of IGs (CIGIE) to help bring the community together:

  • Hire a professional staff and executive director who is more than an administrator to take some of the burden that now falls on individual IGs (facilitated by a direct appropriation to CIGIE);
  • Use CIGIE’s representation role to solicit and negotiate on behalf of all members for common procurements. By negotiating on behalf of all IGs, cost savings and further standardization among IGs can also be realized;
  • Increase focus on issues that affect the IG community at large;
  • Continue open communication with members;
  • Concentrate on OIGs’ operational issues and be proactive in dealing with Congress and OMB;
  • Enable information sharing about common recipients of federal funds;
  • Develop a searchable database of all IG audit reports.

“[T]here is great support for CIGIE playing the role of advocate; however, the individual IGs are extremely independent. As much as they want CIGIE to advocate for them on matters of community interest, there are others who said they ‘do not want CIGIE to speak for me’ and feel that independence is more important than ‘everyone rowing in the same direction,’” the report stated. “While this independence is a strength of IGs and critical to effectively executing the responsibilities of the position, it seems to hamper collaboration and cooperation within the community.”

The survey also highlighted how IGs want to move toward a risk-based assessment process.

The survey found IGs said they have dedicated between 10 percent and 50 percent more resources to data analytics over the past three years.

But about a fourth said data analytics had no impact on their investigations and 22 percent said it has had no impact on their audits.

Zavada said the bigger use of risk-based analytics and conducting more focused audits are among the ways the IGs said they are dealing with larger workloads.

He said IGs also are struggling to hire people with these data skill  sets.

Zavada said the move to data analytics comes from IGs facing declining budgets, increasing workloads and the need to be smarter in focusing resources.

Despite all this talk about data analytics and use of data to make decisions, Zavada said IGs didn’t seem to be heavily focused on the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act).

“I think there is a lot of uncertainty about how the DATA Act will affect the resources in IG offices. Again, it falls into the category of mandated requirements,” he said. “There are a number of checkpoints that IGs and GAO are required to do under the DATA Act, but I think it’s the uncertainty around other parts of the DATA Act like data quality and how much work IGs will have to do in the area of internal controls, to make sure information is accurate that’s recorded.”

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