IGs overburdened by congressional mandates, survey finds

Few agencies host blow-out conference extravaganzas. And few feds swipe their government charge cards when paying for personal stuff. But all federal inspectors general spend more of their time worrying about that sort of wrongdoing, thanks to new congressional mandates.

IGs say those must-do’s are distracting them from enterprising work that could shed light on riskier agency behavior.

A new survey of 28 inspectors general by the Association of Government Accountants and Kearney & Company P.C. shows IGs are concerned about their effectiveness, as they balance work requirements against tight budgets and difficulties in getting needed information.

Along with the online survey, conducted in June, the researchers interviewed a mix of staff at federal IG offices. The researchers delved more deeply into problems uncovered in a similar survey done a year ago.

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Lawmakers doubled down on requirements that IGs review agency conference spending and the use of purchase and travel cards following the 2012 conference scandal at the General Services Administration. Many IGs don’t think the mandated audits are a smart use of their time, according to the survey.

“The effort required to address these issues in the manner prescribed by law was disproportionate to the actual risk,” many IGs said in the report.

They also said they spent too much time auditing improper payments, considering the risk was relatively low.

Instead, IGs said they want more flexibility to go after problems particular to their respective agencies.

The survey authors suggest Congress review all of the requirements it imposes on federal inspectors general.

IGs cite technical and bureaucratic barriers to information

Inspectors general also complained about uncertain budgets and having to jump through hoops — both bureaucratic and technical — to get the information they needed for proper audits.

The federal IG community is “operating at historically-low budgetary and staffing levels,” according to AGA. It “embodies the ‘do more, with even less,’ mantra in government.”

Nearly a third of federal IGs surveyed report losing staff members since fiscal year 2010. Most IGs said their staffing levels remained flat over the past four years. Just 16 percent say they’ve gained employees.

The peculiarities of the federal hiring process make it hard for IG offices to fill vacancies, survey respondents said. In particular, they said they did not have enough control over the process. They had trouble finding candidates with the technical chops to do data analytics or audit IT programs. They cited relatively lower salaries as a deterrant.

IGs worry about doing data analytics on a large scale because of the quality of the data with which they work. Format and integrity varies across systems, and depends on their access. Sometimes the data is wrong. Sometimes IT systems cannot be compared. A new law spells out steps the executive branch must take to fix data-integrity problems, but a solution is years away.

Smallers offices said they need to work together to build up capacity to do data analytics.

IGs say their problems deserve more attention

They also wanted more collaboration when it comes to advocacy. Recently, 47 inspectors general signed a letter to Congress complaining about difficulties that three IGs had experienced with their respective agencies. A House panel held a hearing last week.

It’s that type of advocacy that IGs, particularly those with smaller offices, say could draw attention to their chief concerns. They would like to see the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency take on that role, but the organization would have to undergo some organizational changes and might need Congress’ authority to do so, according to the survey.

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