Appalachian Regional Commission Inspector General Hubert Sparks, 74, has tried to retire twice, but keeps coming back to the federal government. Now, after 43 years, Sparks said this tour-of-duty would be his last. Once a permanent IG is selected, he says he’ll retire once and for all. Although, he says, even in retirement he plans to stay up-to-date with issues involving inspector general practices.
(VIDEO ABOVE: A look inside Sparks’ office. If you’re having trouble viewing the video, go here)
So, where did the man with 43 years of government experience get his start?
As a college student, Sparks spent summers fighting fires in Northern California with the Forest Service.
“I really wanted to end up a forest ranger, but a kid from Brooklyn with an accounting degree wasn’t what they were looking for,” he said.
After college, he spent two years in the military stationed at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. There, he heard about an opening at the Department of Agriculture, which had just established an Office of the Inspector General and was looking for auditors to investigate the use of farm subsidies.
“That sounded a lot more interesting that sitting at a desk doing accounting work,” he said.
He spent the next 20 years at the USDA, auditing programs in more than 40 countries, including Vietnam in 1968.
“My most discouraging point was when they abolished the foreign operations division at the Department of Agriculture because I thought we were doing a really good job of keeping the Department of Agriculture out of trouble on their foreign programs,” he said. “It came as a total shock.”
From there, he joined the Department of Veterans Affairs’ IG office. Then, in 1989, he became the IG of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which awards economic development grants to local projects within the 13 states that make up the region, from southern New York to Mississippi. He stayed there until retiring in 2002.
He ended his retirement to join the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General to audit the cleanup of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He retired again two years later, but came back as inspector general at the Appalachian Regional Commission until some legislative issues are resolved and a new IG can be selected.
THE HUBERT SPARKS FILE:
Length of federal service: 43 years and counting
Number of retirements: 2
What has been your proudest achievement? Surviving 43 years! Seriously, I’ve had a lot of proud moments but overall it’s feeling that you’ve made a difference. Auditing is hindsight and the easiest thing about auditing is to identify the problem and make recommendations to solve the problem. The easiest recommendation is ‘fix it,’ even though we expand on that to make it sound good. The toughest problem is to get the people to agree with your conclusions and take the action that you’ve recommended. The most rewarding part about this job is when you see they’ve taken the action recommended.
What has been the impact of your federal career on your life? On the personal side, the government afforded me the opportunity to meet my wife. My boss at USDA sent me to Harrisburg, Penn. to do a two-month audit in the soil conservation service office. For some unknown reason, it took me seven months to do it and I met my wife there. She was the secretary to the head of the agency. My boss kept wondering why I was taking so long. She now has 45 years in government service and is still working. We’ve been married for 42 years.
What is your most vivid memory of Vietnam in 1968? It was four years before it actually ended but you could tell that this was difficult. And one of my most vivid memories is how we acquired the ‘ugly American’ image in foreign countries. It was not because people didn’t like us. It was strictly because our economic status was so much higher than that of the local people.
What do you like most about being an inspector general? You’re in charge. Maybe that’s an ego thing, but you’re in charge. You decide on a daily basis what you’re going to do. I believe that the IG Act and Amendments are some of — if not the best — legislative accomplishments directed at protecting the public from misuse of funds.
How has the government changed during your career? In the IG’s office, we haven’t changed very much. I wish we would change. I wish we would address more of the major issues and exchange staff to look at critical issues like Medicare rather than doing our own little parochial things in our own agencies.
What would you change about the profession? I’m one of those persons who believe that our job to oversight agencies doesn’t end because the sign on the door says ‘Office of the Inspector General.’ I’ve always been one to recommend improvements for the OIG operations, rather than say we’re doing a wonderful job. Like any agency, I’ve always felt we can improve too. Can we get out reports more timely? Yes, we can.
How has the office environment changed? Technology has done a lot of great things, obviously. It’s improved efficiency and effectiveness in many areas and opened up exchanges of information. But on a personal level, particularly with emails, you’ve destroyed personal communications that I think build trust and confidence between people. When I email somebody, it’s just a strange document. I’d much rather sit down with the head of an agency and discuss a problem or what we’re going to do or a potential finding and get their feedback, as to send them an email saying that I noticed they weren’t administering a program correctly.
What would you say to someone who wants to join the government? There are many challenging positions, no matter your education or profession, where you can actually make a difference. You can come in and be part of the action that runs the government, be it state, local or federal. You don’t have to be the head of the agency but you can make an input that’s really valuable.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work for the IG? The IG community needs generalists. Maybe because I didn’t get an ‘A’ average, I haven’t hired too many ‘A’ students. You have to have the educational background and accounting is still a basic requirement for the auditing job. But I’d be looking for a well-rounded person who had traveled and done things and was interested in government, geography, politics and the whole range of things you’re going to be affected by, as opposed to someone who, as they say about us financial types, ‘wears green eyeshades’ and can’t see anything outside the box. This is a job where you’ve got to go outside the box. I’m looking for someone with fairly confident oral skills and that’s not easy. Interviewing is a tough skill. I got most of my good tips by talking to someone at the water cooler.
You don’t expect to be here longer than a year. When you retire for the third time, what will you do? I’ll probably decide this time that the third time is the final time and I’ll actually retire. I’ve reached my actuarial age, if you look at all the tables. I won’t be able to do much more after 74 years. Whenever I retire, I’m going to enjoy improving in golf and seeing my family in Phoenix, Ariz. I will continue, since my adult life has been consumed by inspector generals’ offices, to be very involved in OIG activities from the outside. When I was retired for those six years, I kept up on what OIG offices were doing and made recommendations on what I thought they could work on or improve. I expect I will do that in a friendly, nonadversarial way. [He laughs.] Although that’s not always the way it’s received.