While inspectors general trace their roots to George Washington's Continental Army, the modern version is less than three decades old, a byproduct of the post-Watergate era of mistrust and skepticism about government. The 1974 midterm election ushered in a new Democratic Congress, packed with hungry young legislators, including Henry Waxman, D-Calif., now chairman of House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who were chomping at the bit to transform Washington and regain a measure of access to executive branch information. Enter the 1978 Inspector General Act.
The bill created a dozen presidentially appointed IGs - two already had been established at the Energy and Health, Education and Welfare departments - who would serve as internal agency auditors and investigators. In a virtually unprecedented move, the measure directed that IGs would report both to Congress and the president, a duty that former State Department IG Sherman Funk once compared to "straddling a barbed wire fence."
Early on, Congress had a difficult time defining the role of the would-be watchdogs, according to Monitoring Government, Inspectors General and the Search for Accountability (Brookings Institution Press, 1993).
Eventually, two competing models developed: the IG as a tough-as-nails lone wolf, with substantial oversight responsibilities, and the IG as strong right arm of the agency who uncovers dirt but keeps it within the family.
The models continue to compete as IGs struggle to find the right balance between investigator and departmental cheerleader. Opinions differ on how to best to walk that tightrope, but most agree that either extreme is fraught with peril.
The relationship between an agency's inspector general and top administrator might be the most complex in all government. While both are political appointees who manage career employees, the similarities end there. Agency heads earn a long life span in public service by keeping their noses clean and staying out of congressional crosshairs. IGs, on the other hand, build their reputations by shining a spotlight on the waste, fraud and mismanagement that by virtue of size and happenstance inhabits virtually all federal agencies. According to the integrity and efficiency council, IG audits resulted in $9.9 billion in potential savings last year while criminal, civil and personnel investigations saved the government another $6.8 billion.
-Robert Brodsky, GovExec.com