Key agencies still lack confirmed watchdogs

magnifying glass on process (robuart/Shutterstock.com) 

Federal agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, and the Office of Personnel Management have gone for months and in some cases years without permanent officials overseeing their Inspector General offices. Few have nominees in the pipeline to end those vacancies.

According to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency's tracking website, the CIA has gone 1,829 days without a permanent IG. DOD has been without one for 1,486 days, and OPM has lacked one for 1,445 days as of Feb. 3. Though some agencies have authority to nominate candidates for their IG offices, the President has nominating authority to name DOD, the CIA, and OPM's IG candidates.

Dan Blair, former president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, said that while acting IGs may have the same full powers granted to their confirmed counterparts, they may not want to be as aggressive in pursuing cases of impropriety for fear that they would overshadow their successor or predecessor.

"Acting officials are generally reluctant to change the course of office from the previous head, and they don't want to hamstring the future head of office. You're never sure when the new IG will come in, so there's uncertainty," he said in an interview with FCW. "It's more or less viewed as a caretaker role. Their decisions don't always carry the same amount of gravitas as a Senate-confirmed official."

On top of that, having acting officials in watchdog positions for prolonged periods sends a message that oversight work is not valued, Blair said. "It's demoralizing for the lower ranks. You think, 'Where do we stand? We should have a confirmed IG in place. Is it not a priority, is our work not a priority?'"

It also challenges the notion that acting officials can still effect change, he added, pointing to the Treasury Department's current OIG vacancy. "Treasury oversees billions of dollars. When you don't have a confirmed IG in place, especially at such a large department, it naturally raises the question of the degree of effective oversight that IGs are expected to conduct."

Efforts are being made to address the vacancies. Chairman Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) of the House Government Operations Subcommittee introduced legislation in September aimed at addressing a lack of permanent OIGs. At an accompanying hearing on the matter, he asked a Justice Department IG about concerns that a vacant watchdog position overseeing the federal judiciary led to claims of sexual harassment going uninvestigated and unpunished.

DOJ IG Michael Horowitz said at the hearing that while he wouldn't comment on what the judiciary should do, he said that at DOJ, "we played a very important role in addressing sexual harassment, sexual misconduct in the Justice Department, and I'm not confident that would have occurred in the absence of an Inspector General."

CIGIE – the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency – the organizing body that provides trainings and guidance on best practices across the IG community, and of which Horowitz is chair, launched a tool on Oversight.gov last month to track OIG vacancies. The impetus was to provide transparency and offer officials a resource to track the long-term stability or lack thereof of some of the government's biggest agencies.

"By virtue of the authority provided for in the IG Act, permanent IGs inevitably are seen as having greater independence. As such, a timely process for addressing vacant IG positions is crucial to an OIG's success in overseeing federal programs and personnel," Horowitz said in the Jan. 14 announcement.

About the Author

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.


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