By: Michael Smallberg
All too often, federal watchdogs find alarming evidence of government malfeasance, only to bury their findings in reports that are dense, hidden, or redacted. In a number of recent cases, the public learned about serious misconduct committed by senior military officers that the watchdogs had uncovered only when outside requesters obtained the investigative reports about the misconduct using the Freedom of Information Act.
POGO has long believed that Inspectors General (IGs) undermine their own effectiveness by failing to publicize their work:
[I]f congressional offices cannot get through a boring report, or if the public cannot access a significant report, then it hardly matters whether the IG has produced groundbreaking major work. To have impact, the IG’s work must be shouted from the rooftops, not hidden modestly behind protestations that “we don’t leak,” or “we aren’t aiming for headlines,” or even, “IGs don’t talk to the press.”
Thankfully, at least one IG office recognizes the value of publicity, and is urging other watchdogs to change their tune.
In prepared remarks for a conference of IG auditors and other watchdogs this month, Gene Aloise—a Deputy IG in the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)—proclaimed that “[p]ublicity is worth pursuing.”
“You may have noticed that many SIGAR reports have made the news,” he said. “One reason is that we publish, post, tweet, and otherwise publicize virtually everything we do.” He said his office follows two basic principles: “(1) unless it’s a security risk or classified, we publish it; and (2) if it’s worth publishing, it’s worth publicizing.”
There are many good reasons for IGs to broadcast their work, Aloise explained. Publicity “brings problems to the attention of senior leaders whose information gatekeepers may not have relayed unwelcome news,” he said. It can also “deter government contractors from cutting corners” and “deter fraud [by] potential wrongdoers.”
“Perhaps most importantly,” Aloise said, “publicizing our work gives the American taxpayer—and congressional appropriators—confidence that someone appointed by the President of the United States is looking out for how their money is spent.”
Special IG John Sopko echoed his deputy’s comments in prepared remarks for a speech last Friday at Georgetown University. “The need to publically highlight management problems is something I learned from the great congressional oversight leaders such as Senators Sam Nunn, Bill Roth, John Glenn, Warren Rudman, and Carl Levin, as well as Congressmen John Dingell and Henry Waxman all of whom I had the great privilege of having worked for,” Sopko said.
In addition to publicizing their own work, IGs should demand greater transparency from the agencies they oversee, Aloise said in his remarks. He cited an extraordinary letter signed last month by Sopko and 46 other IGs who sounded the alarm about recent instances in which agency officials hindered or delayed an IG’s ability to access records. “[W]e have had our own experiences with agency reluctance or obstructionism,” Aloise said.
The SIGAR has clashed with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for instance, over access to information about the oversight of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent in Afghanistan. Sopko told Congress that when he initially asked for a copy of USAID assessments of Afghan ministries, a USAID official told him the reports “were sensitive, but they were mainly embarrassing, so they were going to let the Afghan ministries redact them before they gave them to [SIGAR].”
“Transparency and openness are vital to good government,” Aloise said. “Opaque surfaces polished by agency [PR] staff can conceal problems and provide false assurance that everything is fine.”
“Unless a piece of information is legitimately classified or otherwise restricted, it ought to be available, even if disclosure is not technically required,” Aloise concluded. “And, when disclosure is legally required, as by the IG Act, then agency refusal to provide timely access to the data is intolerable.”
The remarks by Aloise and Sopko are well worth a read. We hope other watchdogs and agency leaders take note.