The People's Watchdog
Inspectors General Foster Accountability, Transparency
By Philip Zisman, Executive Director, Association of Inspectors General
As executive director of the Association of Inspectors General, I have received many inquiries from state legislative and executive branch offices regarding the pros and cons of establishing inspectors general offices. These inquiries frequently occur in the aftermath of embarrassing public corruption or ethics scandals that have left elected officials scrambling to try to restore the public trust and ensure that such wrongdoing will not reoccur.
Melinda Miguel, the chief inspector general for the state of Florida and the president of the Association of Inspectors General, believes the inspector general network in Florida has been instrumental in helping to ensure open and honest state government. In addition to having a chief state inspector general, Florida has inspector general offices in every state agency.
“The inspectors general have played an important role (by) not only detecting fraud, but also deterring fraud and ferreting out abuse. Floridians have come to understand that the IGs are the people’s watchdogs,” Miguel said.
After Congress passed the Inspector General Act of 1978, which established the IG concept at the federal level, Massachusetts in 1980 became the first state to create a statewide inspector general office. Since then, the number of state IG offices has been steadily increasing. Twelve states now have inspector general offices with statewide jurisdiction, and approximately 28 states have created inspectors general offices with jurisdiction limited to specific state agencies and authorities.
In part, the growth in state inspector general offices can be attributed to the seemingly endless parade of public corruption scandals, and the bipartisan efforts of honest elected officials to put an end to these transgressions. In responding to scandal, it is common for legislators from across the aisle to work together and co-sponsor inspector general legislation, as was recently the case in Virginia, which created a statewide inspector general office in 2011.
Inspectors general at all levels of government operate under similar mandates. They provide independent oversight of governmental operations and monitor government for accountability and transparency by conducting investigations and audits in an effort to promote economy, efficiency and effectiveness and to detect and prevent fraud, waste, abuse and corruption.
In debating whether to establish an inspector general office, elected officials sometimes claim that their state cannot afford the additional administrative costs associated with a new state agency, and that the work of the IG will be redundant because the audit and investigative services the IG provides are already covered by other state agencies. In the wake of continuing government scandal and the documented effectiveness of IG offices from around the country in combating fraud, waste and abuse, these arguments have been outweighed by the considerable benefits that inspectors general provide. Specially, there is a growing consensus that IG offices foster government efficiency in several ways.
6 Ways Inspectors General Foster Government Efficiency
1. Increased Government Accountability
An IG’s primary function is to hold government officials and employees accountable to the public. The creation of an independent IG’s office provides an important check and balance to ensure the elected and appointed officials are indeed working in the public interest. The presence of an IG serves as a significant deterrent to officials and employees who might abuse their positions in government.
2. An Internal Mechanism to Resolve Disputes
An IG’s office provides an internal mechanism for resolving disputes based on allegations of misconduct and corruption. In a relatively short period of time, an IG can determine the facts surrounding allegations of wrongdoing by conducting an investigation and issuing a report. The IG can be particularly useful in resolving disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government that can lead to unproductive, protracted and often expensive legal battles. By having an independent IG conduct necessary investigations and audits, public officials can avoid claims that the investigations or audits are self-serving or biased.
3. Transparency in Government Administration
Allegations against public officials involving claims of corruption, ethics violations and abusive practices are now commonplace. All governments need an orderly process for reviewing these claims and, when necessary, taking appropriate action. An IG review of such allegations—with a public release of the findings and recommendations—is an important step in ensuring that allegations of misconduct are fully vetted and that the public is kept informed. The IG is also able, in short order, to dispatch specious claims of official or employee misconduct.
4. Restoration of the Public Trust
After a political or ethics scandal, the public loses faith in government officials. An IG can help restore public trust. The IG’s office can conduct appropriate investigations and audits to address the deficiencies in a government’s internal controls that led to the scandal and make recommendations for improving policies and procedures to prevent recurrences. Moreover, the IG can monitor specific areas of governmental operations implicated in a scandal or otherwise deemed susceptible to fraud, waste and abuse. A meaningful ongoing accountability and oversight program is the only realistic way to restore public confidence in government after it has been tarnished by scandal.
5. Deterrence of Crime
Much of the workplace fraud committed by government employees are crimes of opportunity, often based on employees’ knowledge that administrative operations lack effective internal preventive controls and oversight, leading to a belief that the chances of being caught are low. An active IG’s office, along with a comprehensive ethics code and whistleblower policies, greatly increase the likelihood of detecting employee crime. As a result, fewer employees will risk engaging in fraudulent activities.
6. Cost Savings
Although sometimes difficult to quantify, the potential deterrent effect of an active IG’s office may result in significant annual savings even after factoring in the administrative costs of the office. Further savings can be realized when specific IG recommendations for eliminating waste and abuse are implemented. Moreover, once in place, IGs provide comprehensive and cost-effective, in-house investigative and audit services.
Association of Inspectors General
The Association of Inspectors General is a membership organization of more than 650 federal, state and local inspectors general and their professional staff members. The association conducts training, holds an annual conference and offers a certification program for inspectors general, auditors and investigators working in IG offices. The association’s goal is to advocate for and strengthen the inspector general community.