Amid Trump vacancies, permanent inspectors general missing at cabinet-level agencies

The Interior Department, which faces complaints of sexual harassment from employees at the National Park Service, hasn’t had a permanent inspector general in more than nine years.

The Office of Personnel Management, since February 2016 has lacked a permanent IG in the years following a massive data breach that compromised the sensitive personal information of more than 21.5 million people.

The Defense Department, which faces an uphill battle when it comes to passing a full audit, hasn’t had a permanent IG in more than two years.

This month, the federal watchdog community will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Inspector General Act, which stood up independent, investigative offices within a dozen agencies.

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IGs now occupy 73 posts across the federal government.

But at the same time, 13 agencies currently lack a confirmed, permanent IG, and more than 10 of those have been without a permanent IG for more than a year, according to the Project on Government Oversight. 

While acting inspector generals continue to carry out the day-to-day responsibilities of their offices, Peter Tyler, a senior analyst at POGO, told Federal News Radio that Senate-confirmed, permanent IGs help set a long-term vision at their agencies.

“Permanent IGs would be more willing to take risks — to say, ‘I’m going to take a new direction of how the IG will work,'” which can lead to opening new investigations and audits, Tyler said in an interview. “That is something that you typically don’t see with acting IGs.”

Permanent inspectors general undergo several levels of vetting when they go through the nomination process, and typically require Senate confirmation.

“Going through that process, it means we have a lot more confidence among Congress, agency officials, whistleblowers and the public that these are the right people for the right job,” Tyler said.

Backlog of nominations

While the Trump administration has yet to submit nominees for nearly 200 political positions, it’s the Senate that has slow-rolled the confirmation process for IG candidates.

Of the 13 IG vacancies identified by POGO, President Donald Trump has submitted names for six agency IG jobs.

Some candidates like John Edward Dupuy, the Trump administration’s pick for OPM IG, and Christopher Sharpley, the president’s Central Intelligence Agency IG nominee, remain unconfirmed nearly a year after being named by the White House.

But those nominees make up just a fraction of the 146 pending nominations the Senate has yet to confirm, according to the Partnership for Public Service’s political appointee tracker.

“The number of unfilled positions in the administration is something that has to be corrected, but we would say that the inspectors general are really a different category, and one could even argue a higher priority,” Tyler said.

Some agencies, like the Postal Service and the Federal Election Committee, nominate their own IGs.

“One of the advantages of having an IG nominated by a board or a commission is that gives an IG, in some ways, more ability to withstand political problems. It’s no longer just a president or single individual who can remove an IG, but a number of individuals,” Tyler said.

But the Postal Service requires its nine-member Board of Governors to name a permanent IG. The Trump administration announced three postal board nominees last year, but the board requires four members to establish a quorum. The last member of the board stepped down in December 2016.

Putting whistleblowers at ease

Having an established agency watchdog also helps build trust when employees want to report wrongdoing, but fear retaliation.

At a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in April, Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (R-Md.) raised concerns to Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, and chairman of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), about the willingness of agency whistleblowers to provide information to agency IGs or Congress.

“Whistleblowers are a critical way that inspectors general get information about potential wrongdoing. Making sure that those whistleblowers have the confidence that their case will be handled correctly and given the credibility they demand is really important,” Tyler said.

Seeing across government

When Congress passed the IG Act in 1978, lawmakers envisioned inspectors general as a way to ensure greater ethics in government.

“One could say that in 1978, the IGs were born from the Watergate days. We’re not quite sure what those next set of scandals will be, but we want to make sure that the IG community is ready for them,” Tyler said.

But the watchdog community also fights to reduce fraud, waste and abuse in the government, and in recent years, that part of the job has received more attention.

In April, CIGIE identified back-office functions like IT security and human capital management as some of the top governmentwide management and performance challenges.

“We have a lot of issues and challenges that were probably undreamed of back in 1978,” Tyler said. “That is something where the IG has to get better — something as simple as data analysis needs to be a lot more robust.”

In order to stay on top of those cross-agency challenges, CIGIE last October launched Oversight.gov, a one-stop shop where users can reference more than 6,000 agency IG reports.

In April, CIGIE Chairman Horowitz told House lawmakers that the group was able to stand up Oversight.gov without congressional appropriations.

But in order to make further enhancements to the site, CIGIE has requested “modest
funding” to develop new features, like a checklist of outstanding IG recommendations for each agency, and a cross-agency platform for whistleblowers to leave tips.

CIGIE has requested $1 million -$2 million in annual congressional funding to maintain the site.

“Just looking at cross-agency issues, it’s rarely simply issues of just the Department of Interior or just the Department of Commerce, but how these agencies interact with each other,” Tyler said. Oversight.gov, he added, “really speeds up anybody’s desire to understand what’s happening across the government on a single issue.”

Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill that would give CIGIE $2 million in fiscal 2019 to fund Oversight.gov.