I was fortunate during my tenure as inspector general of the Tennessee Valley Authority and deputy inspector general of the U.S. Postal Service to have boards that understood the important role IGs must play and the statutory independence envisioned by the U.S. Inspector General Act, which created the current IG model in the United States. The boards conveyed a zero-tolerance policy to management within the agencies in terms of interference with our work.
However, I encountered many instances during more than 25 years as an auditor in the U.S. government, where officials tried to block access to records, provided misleading information, or delayed the release of audit reports containing bad news. Unfortunately, it is a challenge that IGs and others in government auditing face all too often.
Last month, 47 federal inspectors general signed a letter to Congress detailing the struggles they faced in trying to obtain records they deemed necessary from three government agencies. The letter, unprecedented in the 36 years since passage of the IG Act of 1978, sends a powerful message that deserves everyone's attention.
Our nation's IGs — the lone group that is legislatively tasked with holding our elected and appointed federal officials accountable — has a laudable history of ferreting out waste, fraud, and abuse. So it would seem unthinkable that the group tasked with being the government's watchdog would be chained up at a time when demands are growing for increased accountability of our public- and private-sector leaders.As I have noted before, government auditors don't often get the respect they deserve. They work with limited staff and tight budgets. They dutifully carry out their jobs in a politically charged environment, where policies and procedures are often influenced as much by politics as by best practices. Ultimately, we all have an interest in IGs' success, because they are "the guardians of public trust."
So how serious is this latest skirmish? How should Congress respond?
First, we should acknowledge that the clashes with the Department of Justice, Peace Corps, and Environmental Protection Agency are not the first time IGs and government managers have butted heads. They certainly won't be the last. However, it is unprecedented that they would publicly seek congressional support.
The public outreach may be motivated by the fact that, in each instance, the agency's refusal to provide necessary information was rooted in claims that issues of privilege or other legal protections overrode expressed authorization in the Act to grant IGs prompt and unrestricted access to all necessary information and materials, without unreasonable administrative limitations or burdens.
Here, we have an instance in which government should look to the private sector for answers. The internal audit function provides many of the same services in the private sector that IGs provide in the public sector.
In recent years, demands on internal audit have increased dramatically as business and economies grow more globally interrelated and dynamic. Rapid technological changes have created new business opportunities as well as new threats.
As such, internal audit today provides assurance services beyond traditional financial and operational issues, including compliance, risk-management and cybersecurity. When done well, the internal audit function acts as a partner and trusted advisor to management.
Public agency managers should recognize that developing similar partnerships with IGs can be just as beneficial, but that partnership must begin with preserving IG independence and allowing IGs to do their jobs.