What’s the Big Deal About Inspectors General?

This is Not Just Garden Varity Corruption- It’s a Core Evil


What is an Inspector General?

I suspect that not all that many people know much about inspectors general (IG) – their purpose, their history, how they normally operate. That’s too bad. Because few institutions are more important to good governance and accountability. Thanks to Trumps latest attempt to block independent investigations, many of us are about to learn about IGs.

There are variants all around. Some corporate Compliance Officers function much like IGs. Ombudsmen for news organizations also fill similar functions. And there are others. A more traditional, full-fledged IG is most often  in government organizations.

The IG system exists to catch those that slip through. The risk of abuse is real in any organization. The larger and more powerful the institution, the greater that risk. Therefore, having an IG team in place is crucial to the health of the larger organization.

In the best examples, the IG is chosen for his or her experience, integrity, and ability to work in difficult conditions. They have extraordinary latitude and freedom of action. They are a part of the larger organization but have independence from the rest of the leadership. This includes access to whatever information they need and the right to maintain secrecy unless and until charges seem warranted.

Those charges may be procedural (still career ending for anyone so charged successfully), criminal (referral) or both. The unquestioned loyalty of the IG team is to the institution and good process. It absolutely in not to an organizational leader. Strong leaders get this and have no problem with that arrangement.

My IG Experience

I grew up professionally in the US Army, an institution that has had IGs since its very earliest days. The military IG has a number of functions but responding to corruption and abuse of power is a core focus. The military has always recognized the corrupting potential of power and privilege – two things that come in ever larger doses with rank. In almost all cases, the chain of command and good processes will catch and resolve such abuses. The operative word here is almost. The IG gets the ones that slip through.

I have some first-hand experience with an IG system, and it has made me a fan. Throughout my military career I would on occasion single out a promising young officer whom I would nominate for IG duty. This was usually done over their wailing and gnashing of teeth objections. To a person, they came back to me years later and confirmed it was the single best preparation they had to become senior leaders themselves. That was why I sent them. Note that this means the system I knew, like most IG systems, does not have career inspectors. The IG ranks are filled from people all across the organization. They can be trained as IGs, but they carry in that field experience with them.

I also had the occasional charge lobbied against me by an unhappy solider, and it was the IG’s job to figure out what was going on. I never objected to the IG showing up under those circumstances. Without the IG, the system is too closed, too much at risk for abuse. You know – like a Secretary of State using government officials to run his errands. Just for a hypothetical example, of course…. Oh, and in my cases, everything came out fine. In case you were wondering.

A Serious Threat

Without a functioning IG, no organization, no employees have a safe, professional capacity to stop abuses in the early stages. This leads, inevitably, to corruption, low morale, abuse of power and privilege, and often to illegal activity. Knowing human nature, such an outlet is essential. I would not trust from the outset any leader who tried to compromise the IG system. This would be a bad sign of worse things to come.

Trump has raised this issue in a way even Nixon would not have attempted. He is simply firing every IG or other independent investigator he is aware of and replacing them with his sycophants. I cannot overstate the damage this does to personnel and operations.  It has not been all that long since Congress passed a law requiring 30 days’ notice and a rationale for firing such a person. More protection is needed.

Even some Republican members of Congress have spoken out against what Trump is doing here (Grassley, for one). But based on the record, time after time, I would count on few of them actually trying to stop him. Few of them – as in zero. And that is yet another reason to vote them out in November. To allow the gutting of so fundamental a tool of accountability is unacceptable.

We likely need something along the lines of Senate confirmation for all IGs and times of service, like the Federal Reserve, that spans more than an administration. The IG should not serve “at the President’s pleasure.” It is not difficult to install recall procedures and still protect the integrity of the system.

We wink at this one or lose track of it in all that is going on at great peril. Let’s not do that, please.

    Bill Clontz

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6 replies to What’s the Big Deal About Inspectors General?

  1. I was not aware of the functions of the Inspector General in typical organizations. Having read this I am now aware not only of the functions, but the importance of those functions, thank you.

    • Thanks you, Herman. They do a number of other things as well, but this is so important. Human nature being what it is, we need that check in place for sure.

    • Thank you, Herman. Glad you found it useful. Given human nature, we need that check on power.

  2. Thank you. I learned a lot from this column and appreciate your efforts to educate us. The IG job sounds challenging. Do they have staff members and is there any sort of hearing for the cases they work on? Tell us more, please.

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