During his time in Congress, when he served on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Jim Bridenstine, now the current head of NASA, made a regular habit of reading the agency’s inspector general reports.
“This is a critically important capability, so that members of Congress have confidence that what they are investing in ultimately is paying a return,” Bridenstine said Tuesday at an awards ceremony for the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).
In his current role as NASA administrator, he said he still reads those NASA IG reports about as often as he did during this time on Capitol Hill — even in cases when those reports shine an unflattering light on the agency.
“It’s important for me to know what my agency is up to, because the agency can do deep dives into areas that if I spent time doing that, I wouldn’t be doing my job, which is running the agency,” Bridenstine said. “We spend a lot of money on very complex, very expensive programs. That guarantees that, from time to time, we’re doing to have cost overruns and schedule overruns. But that’s OK. We need those reports. They’re good for us, they’re good for us as an agency and they’re good for members of Congress and they help us adjust to the realities on the ground.”
While most IGs enjoy a reputation as neutral agency watchdogs, members of the oversight community continue to walk a careful line in staying out of political fights. And even though IGs for the State Department and intelligence community have played a supporting role in the House’s ongoing impeachment proceedings, agency executives and oversight leaders praised IGs and whistleblowers for coming forward to root out government wrongdoing.
Margaret Weichert, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and executive chair CIGIE, said the IG community plays an invaluable role supporting front-line managers who work directly with the public and internal government customers.
“The inspectors general are what I would consider the absolutely critical holding line, and second line of defense that protects those front-line managers and … observes things that perhaps the front-line managers can’t see or are too close to,” Weichert said.
Cathy Helm, the inspector general for the Smithsonian Institution, said auditors, analysts and inspectors who have helped uncover fraud, wasteful spending or inefficiency “know how rewarding it is to right the ship,” adding that IG offices often rely on tips from federal employees to know where to look.
“All the investigators who have listened to a brave whistleblower or a distraught employee alleging wrongdoing know what it is to be the office of protection and redress,” Helm said.
CIGIE recognized dozens of watchdog office teams for their work over the past year. Honorees included the General Services Administration’s OIG for providing what CIGIE officials called “unbiased insight” into the agency’s plans to keep the FBI headquarters in Washington.
The contentious OIG report this summer challenged GSA’s claims that the current plan to demolish and rebuild an FBI headquarters on the site of the J. Edgar Hoover building would cost less than an earlier plan to build a suburban campus in Maryland or Virginia.
The IG report also claimed Administrator Emily Murphy gave “incomplete” testimony to Congress about the White House’s involvement in the decision to keep the FBI’s headquarters in D.C.
CIGIE also recognized the Treasury Inspector for Tax Administration’s (TIGTA) team for its work evaluating and reviewing the IRS’s rollout of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the first major tax reform in 30 years.
Several IG offices received awards for investigations into sexual assault and harassment at their agencies.
CIGIE recognized the Department of Veterans Affairs’ IG office for flagging cases where the agency denied veterans’ claims related to military sexual trauma, while the Agriculture Department’s IG office earned recognition for investigating sexual assault allegations from multiple women against a senior chemist at the Agriculture Research Service.
Department of Health and Human Services’ IG office also received recognition for an investigation that led to the prosecution of two individuals who preyed on unaccompanied children at HHS-funded facilities along the southern border.
In fiscal year 2017, IGs identified $32.7 billion in potential savings across the federal government in more than 4,000 reports. Put another way, every dollar spent on IG oversight has returned $22.