President Reagan's unfortunate decision to discharge all 15 of the federal government's Inspectors General may destroy this fledgling safeguard against inefficiency and ironically hinder the Reagan administration's own ability to reduce fraud, waste and abuse. The Officers of Inspector General were created by Congress in 1978 to strengthen the internal review capabilities of major federal agencies. Prior to the new act, federal internal audit and review offices often lacked the necessary independence to monitor agency operations effectively. In general, agency review offices reported through the same people they were reviewing.

Congress established the Offices of Inspector General as unique positions with status and independence to give them the potential for effective review. The inspectors general are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Although each is within an agency, the agency may not impede the initiating or the completing of audits or investigations.

Most important, semi-annual reports of the inspectors general are required to be transmitted to Congress and made public. A department secretary may comment on the contents of the report but cannot change it or prevent it from going to Congress. These reports can thus serve as a catalyst for change and improvement. The inspectors general, whose sole responsibilty is to investigate and report, can all the shots as they see them. Not having program responsibilities or conflicting operational interests, the inspectors general can report that the kind has no clothes.

The inspectors general are to be appointed "without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and ability." In addition, unlike most presidential appointees, inspectors general are specifically not exempt from the Hatch Act and are therefore prohibited from partisan political activity. Last, although the president is not precluded from removing inspectors general, he must report to Congress the reasons for each removal. The Senate report on the bill stated that "while the committee has not required the president to have "cause" before removing an inspector . . . general, the committee expects that there would be some justifications."

We are now at a turning point. This is the first change in administration since the statutory inspector general offices were established. Either they will be recognized as independent or the quality of their work will sink to its previous, largely ineffective state. To be effective, the offices must not only be independent and objective; they must appear to be independent and objective. A reputation for objectivity and freedom from influence is the greatest asset a government audit office can have. Without it, findings and recommendations, even if accurate and wise, are suspect.

By the mass discharge of all 15 inspectors general -- the good, the poor and the mediocre -- for no reason other than they were appointed by Carter, the president has cast a cloud over any new appointments. The new appointees will, rightly or wrongly, be viewed as administration lackeys, initially on a witch hunt for Carter administration wrongs and later poised to cover up Reagan administration blunders. Even if the administration achieves its goal of ferreting out waste and fraud, the reports of the new appointees will only support this view. Initial critical reports will be followed by reports showing improvement, which can only appear self-serving. The advance statement that the new appointees will be "meaner than a junk-yard dog" is also counterproductive. Auditors should be aggressive, innovative, zealous and skeptical but, above all, fair and objective and not predisposed to be "mean."

The contrast lament of the governmental auditing profession is that its findings and recommendations fall on deaf ears and are not followed by obstinate administrators. Virtually every office could present a long list of unheeded advice to tighten controls and improve efficiency. If the president is serious in his goals, he should elevate the status of the existing inspectors general recommendations and direct his Cabinet to give great weight to the past year's reports and to promptly consider new proposals. The past recommendations could certainly have no taint of a Reagan bias and the authors no reputation of being soft on fraud and abuse. Indeed, the Carter administration most likely considered a number to have been overzealous.

I fear, however, that the initial mass discharge of the first statutory inspectors general has so poisoned the atmosphere that inspectors general may not for a generation feel secure enough to head assertive independent and often unpopular offices. To remedy this problem in the future, it might be worthwhile for Congress to consider establishing a fixed term of eight years for inspectors general, phased in so that half would be appointed at the midpoint of each presidential term. Thus the positions would have sufficient tenure to reestablish their independence.