Inspectors general may be agency watchdogs, but they also need a good sense of humor, according to Brian Miller, the former IG for the General Services Administration. Miller gave Federal News Radio a behind the scenes look at the tough job of an IG in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose — the first interview in an ongoing Federal News Radio series uncovering the work of IGs.
Brian Miller was the IG at GSA during the conference spending scandal in 2012, causing the dismissal of officials and the resignation of GSA’s head executive. From balancing a dual-mission, maintaining trusting relationships with agency heads and other IG officers, and interacting with the media, Miller said being an IG is harder than it looks.
“You have to do it with a lot of common sense, a lot of understanding of what the priorities are,” he said. “You have to do it with a good sense of humor.”
Miller said IGs approach the two missions presented to them in different ways and sometimes struggle to find a balance.
“You have these two basic missions. One is to rout out fraud, waste and abuse,” he said, “The act itself; however, says IGs are supposed to promote the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of the agency programs.”
Miller said he has seen some IGs emphasize the first half of that mission by taking investigating and reporting seriously, and leaving the job there. He said others involve themselves with the agency by orchestrating follow-ups to solve issues.
“It’s like straddling a barbed fence. Straddling two missions that you’re trying to do very well and not fall off the wire,” he said.
Although it is possible for an IG to do his or her job without help from other IGs and agency heads, Miller said good relationships enable IGs to investigate better.
He said these relationships understand the different roles of an IG and agency head, and must rely on “total honesty.”
IGs can’t withhold facts, even when they can be unpleasant, Miller said, but good IG relationships with executives will produce dialogue about how an agency can improve and fix problems. He said managers should be asking IGs questions instead of looking for excuses.
“I viewed GSA as a victim,” he said about a case he handled at the agency. He said he told officials at the time, “It’s not about blame. You’re victims.” With Miller working with the managers, the individual at fault was removed, arrested and served time for taking advantage of the agency.
Miller said IGs often face criticism for their work being a “witch hunt,” undermining the agency or taking too long.
“That’s why it’s important to just to go where the facts are. The most important person to please is yourself. Make sure you have integrity — reflexive integrity. You don’t depend on what other people say because they have their own agenda, unfortunately,” he said.
IGs understand they have important jobs that can affect peoples’ lives and reputations, Miller said, and that’s one reason why IGs tend to stay away from media and “let the work speak for itself.”
Maintaining trust with agency heads and Congress also plays a part when it comes to an IG’s unwillingness to speak with the media, he said. Some IGs fear losing that trust if they disclose certain information. However, Miller said IGs should be speaking to the press after completing investigations.
“Once you have the facts in, once the report is final, I think there are good reasons to come forward and talk. I hope that we will have more conversations about the work IGs are doing and maybe have a few IGs on [the radio] to talk about their work because they do great work and it often goes unnoticed,” Miller said.
Besides commending IGs for their good work, Miller said, given the subject matter of IG cases, publically sharing results could be advantageous.
“White collar criminals actually pay attention to the media. They read the newspapers. They listen to the radio. They may be deterred if they know they’re going to get caught. They may be deterred by hearing somebody else got caught,” Miller said.
He also said that IGs should be quick to praise where agencies have succeeded in addition to where they fall short.
“It’s just as important to exonerate the innocent as it is to convict the guilty, and it’s extremely important,” he said.
Stephanie Wasko is an intern with Federal News Radio.