Michael E. Horowitz, Justice Department inspector general and chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

In an operation as large as Uncle Sam’s, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made, inefficiencies will happen and problems will develop.

But why do the same issues come up over and over and over?

A new report by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) doesn’t answer that question, but for the first time it does provide a guide to the most common concerns that cut across agency lines. The council represents inspectors general, the officials who work inside and for federal agencies, yet whose investigative responsibilities require them to be independent of agency leadership.

The report, being released at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Wednesday, catalogues the seven “top management and performance challenges” cited by 61 inspectors general (IG). Those challenges are information technology security and management, performance management and accountability, human capital management, financial management, procurement management, facilities maintenance and grant management.

No matter how exciting topics like procurement might be to number crunchers, the report notes that some high-profile topics, including national security, public safety and public health, are not on the list. Relatively few inspectors have oversight on those life-or-death issues, so they were not among the topics most often reported.

“Their absence in this report does not reflect a qualitative judgment about the impact or importance of these challenges,” the report said.

By identifying the most frequently cited subjects, the council allows policymakers and program managers to examine why so many agencies suffer from the same disorders. But the report does not tell us why these maladies metastasize.

“Although we could not conclusively determine the underlying reasons why these issues were more frequently reported, or whether systemic government-wide issues caused or exacerbated the identified challenges, we noted that many of the challenges were negatively impacted by resource issues, both human and budgetary,” according to the report.

The report is another attempt by the council to elevate and make more available the work of inspectors general. The council took a major step in that direction in October when it launched oversight.gov. It provides a searchable bank of reports from across the government. Previously, researchers had to look at the website of each inspector general individually.

The website gets no direct funding, but with a “modest appropriation” it could add “a dynamic database that consolidates in one place all open IG recommendations and creating, in conjunction with the Office of Special Counsel, a single, cross-agency reporting mechanism for whistleblower disclosures and complaints,” Michael E. Horowitz, chair of the CIGIE and the Justice Department’s inspector general, and Allison C. Lerner, the CIGIE’s vice chair and National Science Foundation inspector general, said in a statement submitted for the hearing.

“This report allows the public to learn about the important challenges IGs are identifying government-wide, and at the same time will help federal managers and policymakers step back from their daily responsibilities and see the forest for the trees,” Horowitz wrote in an email.

Among the report’s findings:

  • The “protection of federal IT systems from intrusion or compromise by external or internal entities … is a long-standing, serious, and ubiquitous challenge for federal agencies across the government … failure to meet this challenge can have significant consequences in any number of ways, including by exposing individuals’ personal information and compromising national security,” as happened when “data breaches at the Office of Personnel Management exposed the personal information of over 20 million people.”
  • Temporary funding measures and “complying with hiring freezes result in budget uncertainties, delayed hiring actions, and overworked agency staffs.” The Pentagon’s inspector general “reported that the lack of funding or time for training presents a serious concern for the military’s ability to remain a ready force.” Notably, the section on human capital management does not indicate that agencies need the ability to fire feds faster, which has been the focus of much attention by congressional and White House Republicans.
  • Because of procurement management problems, the $500 billion in contracts the federal government had in fiscal 2017 could be “at increased risk for fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.”
  • Some agencies have “deteriorating infrastructure that may cause substandard working conditions for staff.” For example, only half of the Energy Department’s facilities were considered “functionally adequate.”

“Our Inspectors General (IG) continually prove to be one of Congress’s best investments, recovering billions of taxpayer dollars annually,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the oversight committee, wrote in an email. “Their work is vital to independent oversight and they play a key role in addressing systemic issues within our government.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the panel, also praised IGs, but used the report to prod the Republican controlled committee to do more vigorous oversight of the Trump administration.

In his opening statement to the hearing, Cummings quoted the report, saying “’many OIGs reported that their agencies faced challenges related to their agency’s culture, including ethical lapses, lack of accountability, lack of fiscal responsibility, lack of transparency and communication, resistance to change, and low morale.’”

“These findings are deeply troubling, and they warrant rigorous and sustained oversight from this committee,” Cummings added.

Yet even as inspectors general have widespread support, there have been a number of long-standing IG vacancies under Republican and Democratic administrations. There are 14 vacancies, according to the Project on Government Oversight. The number of days vacant, as of Tuesday, ranged from 137 at the Department of Homeland Security to 3,340 at Interior. Now there is one more  — the IG position at the Government Publishing Office became vacant last month.

Vacancies can hinder the ability of inspector general offices to probe problems within agencies, and even among top agency leaders.

“It is not a job designed to make us popular,” Glenn A. Fine, the Defense Department’s acting inspector general, said in testimony submitted to the committee. He is “performing the duties of the inspector general” because that office in the Pentagon, with 1,700 employees and contractors, has been empty for 830 days.