Seven Principles of Highly Effective Inspectors General

Glenn Fine, acting IG at the Department of Defense

By George Jackson & Glenn Fine | Government Matters

The primary mission of IGs is to detect and deter waste, fraud, and abuse, and to promote economy, efficiency, and integrity within their agencies. IGs pursue this mission by conducting audits, evaluations, investigations, and special reviews relating to agency personnel and programs.

Although IGs share the same overarching mission, not all IGs approach their work in the same way. There is an apt expression in the IG community: “When you’ve seen one IG, you’ve seen one IG.” IGs are from different backgrounds – they are lawyers, accountants, investigators, and management analysts, among other professions. Some operate in large agencies with large staffs. For example, the largest Offices of Inspector General (OIG), the Health and Human Services OIG and the DoD OIG, both have approximately 1,500 employees. Others operate in smaller agencies with a small number of employees, such as the Election Assistance Commission OIG, which has one employee – the IG herself.

I believe there are general principles that effective IGs can and should follow.

Principle 1: Remain independent

Independence is an essential attribute of IGs and a cornerstone principle of the IG Act. For their work to be credible, IGs must pursue their mission objectively but also independently from both the agency and Congress. In recognition of that principle, according to the IG Act, the agency head may not prevent an IG from conducting an audit or investigation except in very limited circumstances (such as when that work would harm national security or interfere with ongoing criminal matters). In those circumstances, the agency head must notify Congress of the reasons why the IG should be prevented from performing the work. This provision has rarely been invoked…

Principle 2: Be tough but fair

I explain to new OIG employees that we want to be, and want to be perceived as being, tough but fair. I tell them it is a difficult task to evaluate other employees who are performing their roles often under challenging circumstances and with limited resources. However, IGs frequently must make tough calls describing where operations need to be improved or where otherwise good employees have made serious mistakes. In those circumstances, we should not shy away from justifiable criticism or holding people accountable. Our duty is to make the hard judgments about the actions of those in the Departments and Agencies we oversee, with the goal of helping to improve their operations, seeking to hold employees accountable for misconduct, and clearing those who have not committed misconduct…

Principle 3: Tell the good with the bad

I also stress to OIG employees that we need to be objective in our work and that pointing out when an agency program is doing well, or an individual has not committed misconduct, if that is what the evidence shows, is just as important as identifying shortcomings in programs or misconduct by individuals. We should not pull any punches, but we must also be even handed. We are not out to play “gotcha.” Rather, if the agency program is doing well, then we need to say that in our reports with equal prominence to our discussions of problems. If an individual did something wrong, we need to seek to hold them accountable; however, if the evidence shows they did not commit misconduct, we need to state that also…

Principle 4: Provide potential solutions

When we conduct audits and evaluations, we often find programs deficient in some respect. Our role, however, is not solely to point out the problems. We also need to recommend potential solutions. We should offer commonsense, practical, actionable recommendations that, if implemented, will help correct the deficiencies we identify…

Principle 5: Strive for timeliness

Telling the good with the bad and providing solutions are critically important principles, but to be effective the work of an IG must be done in a timely manner. It does little good if an important audit, evaluation, or recommendation is provided to management well after it has made a key decision on a program. We need to provide management with the report and recommendations when they can be useful. Similarly, we need to hold individuals accountable, or clear them, in a timely way…

Principle 6: Don’t cut corners

Another one of the first things I tell new OIG employees is that we live in a glass house, and that we need to follow the rules. If we are guilty of the actions that we criticize others for in our reports, then our credibility will be severely damaged. I also tell them that our credibility is built over many years, report by report, investigation by investigation, but it can crumble with a single misstep by one employee. We cannot be hypocritical. We need to make sure our own office is in order when we go out and evaluate others…

Principle 7: Don’t expect to be popular

Finally, I tell our employees that working for the OIG likely will not enhance their popularity. I point out that I am certain that I was not the most popular person in the DOJ cafeteria, or now in the Pentagon food court. IGs should not seek to be liked. By the nature of our role, that is not likely to happen if we undertake our work aggressively and independently. I hope our work is respected, that it is taken seriously, and that it has an impact. But I have no illusions that people will always like us or always agree with our findings…

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