By Steve Kelman
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Most elected officials and journalists see inspectors general as nonideological fraud-busters whose only cause is protecting the taxpayer. Many therefore accept their pronouncements as truth-telling without fear or favor.
IGs do accomplish useful work. But the IG culture -- reflected in the topics inspectors choose for reports and the conclusions they draw -- also embodies an ideology about how public organizations should be managed that can make it harder, not easier, for government to perform well. Contracting, a high-visibility area in which IGs have been extensively involved of late, offers many examples, but this culture applies to other domains of public management as well.
First, most IG reports favor punishment, not reward. Many criticize agencies for being insufficiently punitive in their approaches and seldom urge them to do more to reward achievement. For example, IG reports often allege that agencies are too quick to hand out incentives to contractors, but I've never seen one criticize an agency for being too slow to use incentives to motivate good performance -- although many experts believe incentives play too small a role in federal contracting.
As a group, IGs have shown no interest in how government might improve its system for evaluating contractors' past performance, to make it a more potent tool to reward well-performing contractors as well as to punish poor ones.
And when public attention focuses only on IGs' criticism of performance, a government culture that punishes more and rewards less is promoted. Yet academic research has shown that relying only on punishment frequently has dysfunctional effects on long-term individual and organization performance.
Second, inspectors general focus on controls, not creativity. When was the last time you heard an IG call for agencies to do more to develop creative, innovative solutions to problems? These aren't words IGs use, and this isn't how IGs think. Their remedies almost always involve the application of hoary management tools from the turn of the last century, such as having armies of inspectors check for defects rather than preventing problems in the first place, and constant surveillance of employees, who are assumed to be venal or incompetent.
Furthermore, IG reports generally advocate more checks and controls. Controls are, of course, needed by every organization. But favoring this approach means government concentrates on avoiding the bad, not on accomplishing the good. This prompts employees to keep their heads down to avoid fire rather than working to distinguish themselves in a way that might encourage attention. This is disastrous for government's ability to recruit and retain talented people, especially young workers who seek an environment that encourages creativity. It also means IGs contribute to the talent deficit that hurts government.
Third, IG reports often shout about problems but are silent about accomplishments. IGs seem to subscribe to the opposite of the theory that if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. More than any feature of the IG culture, this demoralizes civil servants, whose sense of commitment to their agencies' missions is a crucial driving force for better work. Many federal workers tend to perceive IG criticisms often as either substantively questionable or as mixing a tiny number of real problems with large numbers of trivial ones to create a mistaken impression of rampant abuse. Many interpret IG reports as dishonoring employee commitment to the public good, a source of deep pain. This also makes it hard for the government to recruit good people, while demotivating those who stay.
For contracting in particular, elements of the IG ideology are questionable. The IG ideal of a government contract -- apparent in recent reports on the Department of Homeland Security Deepwater shipbuilding program and the Secure Border Initiative-- appears to be for government officials to develop a design specification and hand it to industry to build. Most contracting experts, both inside and outside government, regard this as a retrograde approach that makes it impossible to hold contractors responsible for delivering solutions that work, because as long as what's delivered meets the specifications, it's the government's fault if the products don't work.
This approach doesn't protect the public good, but it allows IGs to apply traditional auditing methods without having to learn new skills. Many IGs also advocate extreme distrust of contractors, which goes beyond prudent protection of government interests and ignores lessons from business, where firms have realized that efforts to reduce mistrust and facilitate information-sharing across organizational boundaries promote good contractual performance.
Inspectors general of course do good work. But recently in government contracting, an unhealthy situation has appeared in which the IG culture has undermined public management. That is bad for good government.
The writer is a professor of public management at Harvard University and editor of the International Public Management Journal. He is a registered lobbyist for two firms that do business with the government, Accenture and Fedbid.