‘Rhythm’ of respect, communication keys to agency oversight

Nothing can be certain but death, taxes, and in the case of federal agencies —inspector general reports.

Which is why as Washington prepares for an administration swap — and with it thousands of new faces and initiatives — it’s important to strengthen the relationship between IG offices and agency leadership, understand that recommendations aren’t meant to be ignored, and embrace the reality of government oversight.

“More or less, the world finds out everything, eventually,” said Neal Wolin, former deputy secretary at the Treasury Department. “Secrets only last for so long. If you’re … I hate to pick on this example, maybe it’s unfair, but if you’re the head of OPM, wouldn’t you rather have had your IG and Congress and 1,000 other people and the New York Times and god knows who else, all over you on your IT security three years earlier? It just seems like an easy answer to me. Maybe there is some short-term pain. It’s the right pain to take on.”

While pain isn’t always part of the equation, balancing mission with oversight is something all agencies need to learn to balance, according to a panel discussion including Wolin and two inspectors general.

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The panel was part of the Partnership for Public Service’s release of its most recent report on the role of inspectors general.

The report, conducted with the help of Grant Thornton Public Sector, includes a dozen recommendations from more than 72 federal IGs. The recommendations include establishing a person at the Office of Presidential Personnel to write job descriptions for IG vacancies, and reducing the number of congressional mandates for IG offices.

Robert Westbrooks, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation IG, also stressed that agency oversight wasn’t headed out the door with the outgoing administration.

“Eventually the work is going to get done,” Westbrooks said. “Even if you don’t agree with the IG’s perspectives on risks, I would look at it cynically, say at the very least understand that’s where the IG is coming from, so expect some inbounds on some audit reports on these topical areas. You might not agree that they’re high risk, but the IG does, the IG thinks that and they’re going to be auditing in those areas.”

Kathleen Tighe, Education Department IG, said the transition can be tricky for IG offices because new and familiar faces are arriving in Washington, which means an agency leader that has an idea of what’s been done in the past, or someone is coming in with no IG interaction.

“You really have to be cognizant of what those conversations need to be,” Tighe said.

Wolin said developing a “rhythm” that includes conversations about priority issues can help smooth the transition.

“It’s important to start with the idea that the IG and the role of the IG is hugely valuable, that that be conveyed both to the IG, so the IG appreciates that’s what agency leadership thinks, but also to the agency as a whole and that the agency leadership then act in accordance with that basic perspective, whether it’s including the IG and IG staff in the flow of things, so they understand what’s going on, whether it’s providing information access to people, making themselves available to the IG on a regular basis, but also as the IG wants to come and chat about this or that,” Wolin said.

When agency leadership isn’t doing those things, that’s when the relationship breaks down.

“At its core, it’s about a human relationship,” Wolin said. “So there has to be trust.”

There also has to be a trust and acceptance that audits and recommendations are being done for the good of the agency mission, the panel said.

While agency heads needs to snap-to when it comes to audits that result in claims of abuse, theft or violations of the law, Wolin said, if it’s something more organizational, there should be room for a dialogue between the IG and agency leadership.

But that goes back to a mutual respect for one another, Wolin said.

Tighe said she requires customer feedback at the conclusion of every audit. While that can be tough to get input from people that were just reviewed, Tighe said the hope is to improve on future audits.

“The auditors go out with a survey … it asks all sorts of questions: Did our audit look at issues you consider to be high priority? Did the team conduct their work in a professional manner? Was the report fair? Did it provide information and recommendations that were useful to you,” Tighe said. “We also then look in specific ways, ask about recommendations were made, were they specific enough, were they feasible, were there other barriers and then if they were all that, are there still barriers to implementation?”

Implementing recommendations can also be an uphill battle depending on whether or not there is an easily identifiable monetary return on investment.

“We all know some recommendations are more monetary and some aren’t,” Tighe said. “Some of the more important ones are really not monetary, they’re looking for program improvement. It’s nice to be able to point to positive ROI … and I think it’s important to get money back that is owed the tax payer. But I do think it really is only a small part of the picture of what we do. It’s important to understand the recommendations we have to make internal controls better, that make programs work better and more effective and efficient are also very important. It’s hard to put a monetary result on that.”