Waiting on watchdogs

December 20, 2017 Patricia J. Harned, Ph.D.

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinions and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by Ethics & Compliance Initiative CEO Patricia Harned.

The confirmation hearings of presidential appointees have been front page news of late, mostly because of the foibles of some of the nominees.  Without question, the task of filling positions after a Presidential transition is a daunting task.  The Trump Administration has more than 4000 posts to fill; 1200 of which require Senate confirmation.  To date, 496 nominations have been made; just over half (261) have been confirmed.

Many of the vacancies awaiting appointed leaders are critical to the functioning of our government; none more so than the federal watchdog offices that have vacancies at the top (a full list is below). These offices fill a vital function as they investigate suspected violations of fraud, waste and abuse, and seek accountability if wrongdoing has occurred.  Other offices, like the US Office of Government Ethics (OGE) vet presidential nominees and support the implementation of conflicts of interest and stock act filings.  In many cases these watchdog offices have openings at the top because the pressures of the job are immense and we don’t compensate these leaders for the value they bring to our country.

Of 73 Inspectors General that should be in place, 13 positions are now vacant. That might not seem like a large number, but consider some of the agencies they monitor:  the Department of Defense, the NSA, the US Postal Service, and the Social Security Administration.  All places where questions of ethics and the use of money is critically important.  Only 6 nominations have been made to date to appoint leaders to these posts.

When Walter Shaub very publicly resigned his position as Director of the US Office of Government Ethics (OGE), he used his departure to point out an important weakness in our federal system; that OGE has insufficient ability to insist on compliance with the regulations under its purview.  He offered several recommendations about ways that OGE could be improved.  I’d like to add a few more on behalf of all our watchdogs.

  • Filling the OGE and IG vacancies should be the highest priority. The work goes on for employees in these operations, and there are dedicated career professionals who serve as interim leaders until a permanent appointment is made.  But there’s a big difference between an agency that maintains status quo until the new head arrives and the entity with an appointed IG who holds the title and leads the charge.  Pushing back against a federal agency (or the White House) when wrongdoing is found is no easy task.
  • Congress should review the compensation of IGs. The longer an IG remains, the more he/she becomes familiar with the agency and improves in the detection of fraud, waste and abuse.  For that reason, IGs don’t have term limits, and they earn their keep.  Many of them recover millions of dollars that would otherwise be mismanaged each year.  Yet IG salaries remain fixed.  It’s not reasonable to expect that these leaders will remain in the job if they can only receive a meager cost of living increase each year.  Especially when their direct reports earn more than they do, simply because they are eligible to receive merit pay.

Part of the problem we face is that these vacancies don’t make or break elections, so appointments aren’t urgent.  But the work of these watchdogs is essential to our maintaining good government.  We need them, and we need to take care of them.