In a recent op-ed, called "The IG Ideology," Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Steve Kelman takes a broad swipe at the federal government's Inspectors General (IGs). He unfairly attacks them for doing exactly what they're supposed to do – that is, to highlight agency mismanagement and billions of dollars in waste and fraud. He even goes so far as to blame the IGs for creating a culture that “demoralizes civil servants.”
While Mr. Kelman is correct in saying there is a culture within the federal government that demoralizes our public officials, he's not correct in blaming the IGs. Over the past several decades, the government's priorities have been corrupted, changing from acting in the public's interest to acting in its contractors' interest. It is this insidious change that has most demoralized those in the government who still try to work for the public good.
The world of federal procurement reflects the government’s shift in priority.
In fact, changes within the federal procurement system went a long way to hasten that shift. As one of the government's ranking procurement officials in the 1990s, Mr. Kelman led the acquisition reform movement, which was intended to make government more efficient. As it turns out, the reforms weren't reforms at all – they were boons to contractors and have created a target-rich environment for IGs. The changes to procurement law so undermined taxpayer protections that, as many IG inspections are revealing, the contracting system is now rife with waste and abuse. The system lacks real transparency and accountability, and freezes out many smaller firms through extraordinarily weak competition requirements. And some contracting practices, once considered to be unlawful, are now business as usual.
Also promoting the shift in the government’s priorities is the revolving door between the government and its contractors. The benefits of employment or board membership with contractors have become a siren song for a growing number of federal officials who oversee those contractors. The officials who succumb to the lure frequently end up, whether consciously or not, brokering deals for their potential future employers – often at the expense of the taxpayer.
Ironically, Mr. Kelman is himself an example of the revolving door. As he disclosed in his op-ed, he is a registered lobbyist for government contractors. What he did not note is that he also serves on the board of GTSI, a billion-dollar-a-year government contractor. Just a year ago, the Small Business Administration IG recommended that GTSI be debarred from receiving federal contracts (pdf). Small wonder he has it in for IGs.
In general, there seems to be a misconception about what IGs are supposed, or are not supposed, to do. According to the IG Act of 1978, the law that established the Inspector General function, IGs are supposed to investigate possible wrongdoing and, when they find it, expose it. Period. Among the numerous abuses brought to light by IGs and other auditors are price gouging and cronyism in Iraq contracting – the possibility of which Mr. Kelman ridiculed in an earlier op-ed [“No ‘Cronyism’ in Iraq,” Washington Post, Nov. 6, 2003, Page A33]; the C-130J cargo plane contract that, had it not been for the IG’s and Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) work on the issue, would have cost the taxpayers an additional $168 million; the numerous debacles in the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort; and the contract for the US VISIT border security system (pdf) that has cost $1 billion and still does not work.
Rather than attacking the IGs, we should be fixing the broken contracting system that is creating so much work for them. Because of acquisition reform, IGs and other government auditors are fighting an uphill battle: they now have fewer tools to combat contract overpricing and limited access to contractor cost data, while still trying to oversee spending that has doubled since 2000. There are nearly a dozen bills currently working their way through Congress that attempt to restore transparency, accountability, and competition – most notably Chairman Henry Waxman's (D-Calif.) “Accountability in Contracting Act,” which passed the House by a large margin. Congress should give the IGs a hand by cleaning up the contracting system and, more broadly, by re-establishing an arms-length relationship between the government and the companies with which it does business.
-- Danielle Brian