2016 a year of ‘opportunities and challenges’ for agency IGs

Inspectors general can be effective agency watchdogs and a bank of institutional knowledge during an administrative transition — the hard part is letting them do those jobs.

A new report from the Association of Government Accountants and Kearney & Company finds that recruitment, retention and resources are challenges for the IG community.

“It was a story this year of opportunities and challenges,” said David Zavada, partner with Kearney & Company, and the survey director. “The challenges that keep coming up year after year are mandated audits that inhibit their ability to really address the most significant risks within an agency, staffing challenges, the HR process being very slow and out-dated, and information security keeps coming up year after year.  But on the bright side I think that there were a lot of opportunities. The change in administration and a new set of political appointees … I think that presents a real opportunity for the community and a lot of the IGs talked about it as an opportunity to present some of their work and identify agency risks and really participate in a very positive way in that process.”

“I think what we saw, kind of a continuation that we saw last year, was it’s tough to hire the people with the right skill sets [and] access to data not always as free and open as it’s supposed to be for IGs to do their job,” said Ann Ebberts, AGA chief executive officer. “I think the number of slots still available, still acting IGs, especially the politically appointed IGs, are not being appointed. There’s lots of holes in that.”

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According to the report, as of August 2016, 11 of the 36 presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed IG positions were empty or were filled by an acting inspector general. This can cause a breakdown in morale and long-term planning.

About 85 percent of respondents also said the uncertainty of the confirmation process also hurt the hiring effort.

Not only are the inspector general positions unfilled, but IG offices are also struggling to recruit and retain a skilled workforce.

Respondents said 29 percent of the time the hiring process failed to provide a good pool of candidates, while only 12 percent of respondents said the process allows them to hire someone in a timely manner.

“Sometimes the private sector pays more for those skill sets than the government is able to pay, so it becomes a challenge to hire the right kind of people with the experience that can really hit the ground running and have a real impact in the organization,” Ebberts said.

Survey takers also said there needs to be a new job series added to address performance audits and communication skills, and perhaps an update to the Office of Personnel Management’s current GS-0511 series for auditors.

“In the eyes of those participating in our survey, a large majority of the audit work performed by most IGs is not financial in nature and does not require a strong accounting background,” the report said, adding that most audit work is dedicated to performance.

“Survey participants stressed that the focus on performance audits requires staff with strong oral and written communication skills, as well as the ability to evaluate program effectiveness through the application of analytical skills,” the report said.

A real resource

This the fourth year for the survey, and along with hiring woes, IGs and representatives from IG offices said they were concerned with information security.

According to the survey, only 56 percent of respondents said they were comfortable with their office’s ability “to adequately identify and address data security matters for [their] agency/organization.”

“With the majority being ‘somewhat’ comfortable with their office’s capability, it is clear why most offices are relying on outside consultants or contractors for assistance in addressing security issues,” the report stated.

“Information security came up last year as a focus area, and this year as well,” Zavada said. “The question we ask there is if you had additional resources where would you spend it, and last year and this year they said information security.”

The report also highlighted the importance of IGs as the government prepares for a presidential transition.

According to the survey, while many of the IGs said the transition would not affect their organizations, most were planning in-person meetings and briefing books for the incoming employees and appointees.

“IGs should be a real resource to new administration folks coming in,” Ebberts said. “They have the history of what’s happened in the past, some of the potential risk areas, areas that have been overcome by good practices, so you can kind of applaud and help to expand those good practices. I think that that’s a real benefit to new administration folks in really understanding the role of the IG. I think the report helps to lay out kind of a historical legislative perspective as well as what hopefully some legislation will change moving forward.”

Among that legislation is the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2016, which gives IGs the ability to access federal grand jury information normally protected from disclosure, and exempts IGs from certain privacy laws when conducting an audit or investigation.

“I think the IG Empowerment Act was certainly something that’s on the mind of the community,” Zavada said. “It passed the House in June, the IG community is hopeful it will become law. I think it’s important to reassure IGs and to really refresh their authority in some areas. I think this would provide an added emphasis on the role of the IG and clarify some specific things related to their access for information, their subpoena power, and also introduces some data sharing authorities. And it also requires GAO to study the IG vacancy issue … .”

 

 

The AGA and Kearney survey also asked respondents for their thoughts on the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 [DATA Act], because the IG offices are responsible for a series of reports reviewing a sample of their agency’s spending data, and submitting a series of congressional reports related to data quality and DATA Act implementation.

About 40 percent of respondents said DATA Act responsibilities will require a moderate use of resources, while 33 percent said the implementation would require limited use of resources. Only 7 percent of respondents said the use of resources would be significant, while 20 percent did not make an assessment of the use of resources.

“I don’t know what the right number is, I guess it depends on the size of the agency,” Ebberts said. “IGs are doing readiness reviews, they have mandated reviews they have to start doing in 2017. Again, it’s hard to tell depending on the complexity of the systems, the size of the organization.”

“The IGs play a very significant role in the DATA Act,” Zavada said. “For the data to be useful it has to be accurate and IGs will be looking at that data and reporting out on the accuracy. And I think that’s an important role that they have their eye on.”