On March 22, Thomson Reuters — in partnership with the Atlantic Council — assembled an extraordinary panel of current Inspectors General to discuss the role of IGs in uncovering fraud, waste, and abuse in the federal government.
Entitled Mission Not Impossible: How Inspectors General Untangle Webs of Deceit, the panel was moderated by Reuters News Criminal Justice Correspondent Sarah Lynch, and covered a wide range of issues, including the crucial importance of independence and transparency to public trust, the role of whistleblowers in uncovering malfeasance, the increasing use of technology and data analytics to identify fraud, cybersecurity issues, and more.
Ms. Lynch opened the discussion by pointing out that cases of egregious abuse and outright fraud are often headline news these days, making “the role of Inspectors General arguably more important now than ever before.” The duty of Inspectors General is to investigate instances of fraud, waste, and abuse within executive-branch agencies of the federal government. By design, their role is independent and non-partisan, and in many ways they serve as the citizenry’s eyes and ears in government, ensuring that taxpayer dollars are not being wasted, misused, or stolen.
Working in the background
The panelists began by noting that while their work sometimes results in headline news, the work itself is typically done in the background, and many people — including new members of Congress — do not understand the breadth and depth of their responsibilities.
The IGs discussed the increasing importance of technology and cybersecurity in their role as government watchdogs. “The ability to use technology to analyze data in real time has transformed the way we do business,” said Health and Human Services IG Daniel Levinson. “We’re able to understand much better patterns of behavior, and how healthcare is actually delivered.” A national takedown last summer of an opioid-prescription fraud ring happened, he said, because data analytics alerted investigators to “prescription patterns that made no sense from the standpoint of reasonable and fair medical practice.”
Peggy Gustafson, Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Commerce, agreed that Big Data opens exciting possibilities, but cautioned that government data isn’t always reliable. “The big task is to get quality data in government,” she said. U.S. Dept. of Justice IG Michael Horowitz agreed, noting that when his office tried to do an audit of inmate healthcare in 121 federal prisons, only 20 prisons had electronic data; the rest were still recording everything on paper. “You can’t do data analytics with paper,” he said, noting dryly, “We did issue a report and recommended that they get into the 2000s at least.”
Part of living and working in the 21st century involves concerns about cybersecurity, of course, and all the IGs agreed that protecting government networks is essential. “IT is involved in everything,” said Glenn Fine, acting Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Defense. “We are at risk… and the challenge is not going away.”
Likewise, Commerce IG Gustafson said most people are probably unaware that her office is deeply involved in preparing for the upcoming 2020 census. And according to DOD IG Fine, more than 1,000 auditors in his office are involved in annual audits of the DOD, an ongoing project that he said has been called “the largest financial-statement audit in the history of the universe.”
Discretion to investigate
In addition to IG functions proscribed by law, the panelists explained that IGs also have discretion to investigate cases that come to their attention by other means, including department risk assessments and tips from whistleblowers. Prioritizing investigations can be a challenge, however. According to Fine, the DOD tip line gets 15,000 complaints a year, and while “we take whistleblowers seriously,” he said, most tips don’t merit a full investigation.
Maintaining the independence and integrity of the IG’s role was another area of discussion. Ms. Lynch asked how IGs balance their duty to the public with their duty to keep Congress and department heads informed. The panelists admitted that conflicts do occasionally arise, but they agreed that continuous communication with stakeholders is also essential to the process. “The best disinfectant is sunlight,” Fine said, quoting famed Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
When push comes to shove, however, investigators “need to be protected,” said Gustafson. In the end, she added, the Inspector General Act of 1978 (along with its 2008 amendment) provides a legal framework for IG independence that she is still “in awe of.”
The panel concluded with audience questions about internet security, the need to protect whistleblowers, and the challenges of adequate technology assessment.