What your agency’s inspector general says you need to get after

The Government Accountability Office gets all the attention. But the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), also has lists of ma...

The Government Accountability Office gets all the attention. But the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), also has lists of management and financial priorities for federal agencies.  The Federal Drive with Tom Temin discussed the latest list with the chair of CIGIE, the Interior Department’s Mark Lee Greenblatt.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Ok, so CIGIE came up with this list. And I guess my question is, what are you adding here? Since there is an equal in some ways more comprehensive list from GAO, which admittedly gets more glory than CIGIE?

Mark Lee Greenblatt Yeah. Well, this is the third year that we’ve done this, we do this every two years. And we are trying to add value where we can. We have 74 IGs that are looking inside the agencies and waste, fraud and abuse, and every year they’re required, each IG is required to put forward their top management challenges for that agency. And so this is a roll up of all of those, a comprehensive view across government. We think this adds value because it’s from inside the individual agencies. And frankly, there is a risk of list fatigue, which is real. There’s an old axiom in Washington that the first time you get sick of saying something is the first time that the public hears it. And I think that’s an element of this, is that we need to maintain a steady drumbeat of attention on these high risk areas to ensure that we effect positive change across the federal agency.

Tom Temin Because one of the items on your list, and we kind of know this from decades of experience, procurement management is problem for 37% of the agencies. And the Biden administration just came up with a better contracting initiative. So maybe they were listening. People do listen.

Mark Lee Greenblatt I would hope so. That’s the whole purpose of this. And that’s the whole purpose of our top management challenges report that all of the IGs issue every year, is to shine a light on these. And these are big ocean liners, many of these federal agencies. And certainly when you’re talking about the federal government writ large, it takes a long time to turn these things around. They don’t turn on a dime. And so we’re identifying these problems year after year so that we can develop some momentum toward effecting positive change.

Tom Temin And if you look at some of the patterns of your reports and also of the GAO reports and even some others, beyond that, there seems to be a theme often of a weakness of agencies in the ability to do their own oversight of programs. You see duplicative programs. And one agency doesn’t know whether the other agency is funding the same request from a state level agency, for example. We’ve seen this a lot recently. And so maybe the real issue is not that list, but how do you build up general program management qualities in the senior executive and in the more advanced ranks of the federal employees so that they can avoid these issues? And that theme?

Mark Lee Greenblatt Absolutely. And I think that’s a drum that we’ve been pounding on over the years, is to develop the infrastructure inside the federal agencies to manage these programs. We’re certainly seeing that in my office. Take, for example, at the Department of the Interior, with respect to the Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. Those are huge amounts of dollars, huge programs that are either brand new or greatly expanded from small programs in the past. And so we have flagged that they need to build capacity both at the ground level and at the senior ranks. As you’re talking about, Tom. And that’s a significant issue. And the fact of what you were talking about, where multiple grants say go to the same recipients for overlapping causes, that’s called double dipping. We are seeing that and we are writing reports on those types of issues to, again, shine a light on them so that the agencies can then take action.

Tom Temin What’s going on with pandemic response? I know that’s been a big issue for CIGIE and roughly every two weeks something else comes out from somewhere on how many billions were wasted on this SBA program or that FEMA program or whatever. And will we ever get to the outlines of pandemic response?

Mark Lee Greenblatt That is a huge endeavor, it is ongoing now. We are seeing a number of criminal matters moving forward in that regard. It’s just a question of volume, just a sheer volume issue. But that’s something we are attuned to. We are seeing it in unemployment insurance, in the paycheck protection program PPP’s and EIDL loans. We’re seeing it across the board on a very large scale and we are doing what we can to either bring those criminal matters forward and trying to change inside the programs, but also trying to refer it over to the health agency so that they can improve going forward. And that’s one thing we’re focused on now, is shifting to a playbook on how we can help these types of programs in the future.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Mark Lee Greenblatt. He’s the Interior Department inspector general. And for today’s purposes, chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. And the whole underlying theme of the problem with pandemic response was speed. Congress made a political decision. Let’s push the money out as fast as possible because people are starving out there. And the fact is that another month might have let some of the oversight mechanisms that are well known, they simply weren’t invoked to come into place for these programs, and maybe some of the billions wouldn’t have gone out in the first place.

Mark Lee Greenblatt I think you’re right. At the time, there was a real tangible panic about timing. And I think that’s one thing that may be a lesson that we learn going forward, and that these types of disaster type scenarios going forward, be it a pandemic or hurricane, whatever it is, we can maybe implement some of those anti-fraud and accountability measures at the outset, which will help us in a significant way ensure that the dollars are going to the intended beneficiaries.

Tom Temin Because there were some mechanisms that were just disabled and forgotten about from the financial response of 2008 and nine and just wasn’t there anymore. And people knew it wasn’t there, but nevertheless, the programs went forward.

Mark Lee Greenblatt Yeah, I think the mentality was get the money out as fast as you possibly can. I understand the motivation, the problem is if you’re in the anti-fraud business and you’re trying to protect taxpayer dollars, that is a daunting prospect because getting the money out the door and trying to find the defrauded funds afterward is nearly impossible. It’s called the pay and chase model, where you pay and then you chase the fraudulent actors afterward. That’s never worked in any scenario.

Tom Temin You get a little bit here and there, but you don’t get the bulk of it back.

Mark Lee Greenblatt That’s exactly right, Tom. And that’s the problem. The pay and chase model, while attractive in a scenario like that, where the motivation was to get the money out the door, which I understand. The problem is the pay and chase model after the fact just doesn’t work. And we see that in Medicare. We see that in a wide variety of other settings where there is a pressure to get the money out the door. But there’s going to be a significant amount of risk there and the policymakers need to come to terms with that type of risk and risk tolerance. And now we’re seeing that was a lot. And I don’t know that we want to do that again.

Tom Temin And there’s a long list here in your report. We could go through all of it. But the one I wanted to ask you about was financial management, a perennial 39%. I guess that’s the amount of agencies that have that problem. Do you have any sense of those 39% of agencies, how much of the money they represent because of it’s DoD then that’s half the government spending.

Mark Lee Greenblatt Yeah, I don’t know that number off the top of my head, but it is a large volume of the federal government. I know in my office at the Department of Interior, this is a persistent issue, especially now with the Infrastructure Act and with the Inflation Reduction Act. Those are enormous sums of money going out the door in the Department of the Interior, and that management is something that we have flagged repeatedly. We do see some progress, some pockets of progress, for example, HUD, housing and urban development. They actually took financial management off their top management challenges list. There are elements of growth and development and evolution and good direction. HUD OIG feels pretty good about that because they have been beating that drum for years. And so I think they’ve effected some positive change there. The concern is what you raised, Tom, which is that this is really prevalent in the big agencies that are issuing huge grants, huge contracts going out the door. This is just a persistent issue that we in the IG community need to be at the forefront of, of effecting that positive change.

Tom Temin Because finance has really two aspects. One, can you manage the money according to good accounting practices and have clean statements which most agencies are getting to, notably, DoD is still absent there. But then there’s also the aspect of waste through poor program management, which is not exactly the same as accounting and financial management. But it does mean more money goes out the door than you planned on in a way that you don’t plan on cost overruns late. So in many ways, finance reaches into all the other functions like procurement and IT.

Mark Lee Greenblatt You’re exactly correct. And it undergirds many of the issues that we’re seeing here in terms of program management and all the issues that you’re talking about. They are interrelated here. So these aren’t like clean lines and big silos. They do have some crosscurrents that bleed into each other and that financial management is certainly one of those.

Tom Temin And this report dropped and presumably it goes to Capitol Hill. But for the past couple of months, Capitol Hill has been a weird hairball of conflict that has nothing to do with normal operations or normal procedures of their own. Did you get any splash from the report so far?

Mark Lee Greenblatt Well, we usually get some traction with our key stakeholders. We have a number of oversight committees that we engage with directly all the time. And so we have a robust dialog with them frequently. And we do discuss these things and they appreciate it. This tease it up for them in terms of what legislation they can put forward. They are trying to solve problems and we work with them. We’re happy to identify them and identify some thoughts on how we can address some of these problems. And so we have good partnerships with folks on both sides of the aisle, both houses of Congress and certainly the executive branch as well. And so I think we’re using this as a vehicle to, again, effect that positive change that we’ve been talking about.

Tom Temin Is it still fun to be an IG these days?

Mark Lee Greenblatt It’s always fun to be an IG, Tom. It’s hard, there’s no question about it. But these are important roles that we serve both at the IG level and in our staff. It’s incredibly rewarding. We just had our CIGIE Awards ceremony earlier this week. And Tom, it’s amazing the work that’s happening throughout the community effecting positive change from everything from cyberstalking to cyber fraud, from veteran suicides to violent gangs, from the evacuation in Afghanistan to oversight in Ukraine. We have great work going on across the entire federal government. It’s really inspiring. So, yes, the answer to the question is that it is fun to be an IG, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

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