Bureaucracy rules, oversight suffers

Inspectors general in agencies throughout the U.S. government are bogged down with congressionally mandated accounting that distracts them from large-scale investigations and whistleblower complaints, according to a report to be released today.

The report by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), an independent watchdog group, found that whistleblower calls are, in some cases, answered by an outsourced agency or merely brushed aside.

Inspectors general (IG) - charged with rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in federal agencies - are expected to face additional scrutiny as money from the Economic Recovery Act rolls into the agencies. As part of that funding, many of the IG’s budgets will increase as well.

POGO’s report, based on questionnaires and interviews completed by about 60 percent of the 67 statutory IGs assigned throughout the government, concludes that the IGs - as well as the White House, Congress and the public - need to find a better balance in the quantity of reports and priorities, among other areas.

“What we found was a lot of gray situation where we found that for the most part, there’s not been enough attention paid to questions of balance … of quantity versus quality,” said Beverley Lumpkin, a POGO investigator.

Inspectors general are congressionally mandated to complete a specific number of auditing reports each quarter, including semiannual accounting reports to Congress, depending on the agency.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, the IG’s office spends 83 percent of its time working to prevent Medicare and Medicaid fraud, according to the report. While Medicare and Medicaid make up 85 percent of the total department’s budget, it leaves just 17 percent of the IG’s time and money to be spent covering National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, POGO said.

“That leaves very little time, resources and staff left to cover the rest,” Ms. Lumpkin said. “We don’t say those numbers are utterly lacking in value and meaning. Maybe Congress needs to change the law required to be reported.”

In other cases, POGO found, inspectors are spending much more time on investigations into “low-hanging fruit” such as employees fiddling with postage meters. POGO said such work typically overlooks more serious waste, fraud and abuse.

But former National Science Foundation IG Christine Boesz said in the report that “inappropriate use of computers, postage and other agency resources are symptoms of … management failure. … Sometimes pebbles turn into boulders - even mountains.”

A major source of concern for POGO is how IG offices treat whistleblowers. According to POGO, whistleblowers typically are cautious about using hot lines and anonymous Web portals and they reveal information slowly once they have made contact. The report found that overworked IG offices typically don’t take the time to listen completely to insiders with information or lack the resources to follow up on all comments.

The report also found that many IGs worry that the Integrity Committee - the group assigned to investigate allegations against inspectors general - is not transparent.

In one instance, when the committee’s appointee completed an investigation into accusations of possible misconduct by the IG at NASA, it summed up the bruising report but failed to recommend specific disciplinary action to the committee chairman. The chairman thought that meant no punishment was recommended, so a “mere wrist-slap” was issued, even though members later said that removal should have been considered.

A later Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation found that the Integrity Committee should follow up on the “lack of independence” in the NASA IG Office.

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