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​Inspectors General: The Four Pillars of Their Credibility

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Once again, a U.S. Inspector General (IG) has come under scrutiny, this time for behavior being described as a pattern of misconduct, including allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers and questionable hiring practices.

During my tenure as IG for the Tennessee Valley Authority, I understood the importance of fostering an organization that carried out its work free of interference and one that demanded the highest principles. So these kinds of allegations are particularly troubling to me. 

It is much too early to determine the validity of the allegations being made against the IG at the Department of Commerce, and it would be unfair for me or others to comment on them directly until a final investigation and due process has run its course. However, this developing story does raise an important question: When should a president act to remove an inspector general in​ the face of allegations of wrongdoing?

There are two key factors to consider. First, it is imperative that allegations be thoroughly investigated under the process outlined in the Inspectors General Act of 1978. These well-thought-out procedures were created to ensure due process, and they should be followed.

Another significant consideration, however, is how the public airing of such allegations and subsequent investigations affect the credibility and public confidence in these federal government watchdogs.

Balancing those two factors can be particularly challenging.

The IG Act has been described — accurately in my opinion — as one of the greatest legislative accomplishments of the latter half of the 20th century. How our nation got by without a high-level federal watchdog for so long astounds me. Time and time again over the past 35 years, IGs have uncovered corruption, waste, and fraud at many levels of government and saved taxpayers untold billions of dollars. In 2013 alone, there was a potential US$37 billion in savings in audit recommendations and another US$14.8 billion in potential savings from investigative receivables and recoveries from IGs.

Anything that threatens to erode public confidence in the IG system, then, should be a matter of grave importance. Don't be fooled — loss of public confidence can erode the efficacy of the function as much as actual wrongdoing.

For that reason, IGs must possess an exemplary and absolutely unassailable reputation. Anyone serving in that capacity must know that if that reputation is compromised, it is time to move on. Simply stated, an IG's reputation is inescapably linked to the credibility of the office.

That reputation and credibility must be built on what I refer to as the Four Pillars — objectivity, independence, competence, and integrity. These are the pillars to which all IGs must aspire.

  • Objectivity assures that an IG's audits and recommendations will be based strictly on the facts uncovered in an assignment.
  • Independence assures that an IG's audits and recommendations aren't subject to pressure from outside forces.
  • Competence assures that an IG's audits and recommendations meet the highest standards for performing the work.
  • Integrity assures that an IG's audits and recommendations carry the weight and credibility of an office that has earned professional respect and public confidence.

Questions about any one of the Four Pillars undermine public confidence in the office's ability to carry out its watchdog role. In the end, the president should be guided by the necessity to keep those four pillars intact to support the mission and the role of IG when determining the fate of any particular appointee.

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