Neal Fox | Contracting in Perspective: Does the IG matter?

The recent flap between the General Services Administration's inspector general and GSA officials over IG procurement audits, coupled with others like it'including the Defense Department IG report on using non-DOD contracts'highlights a disturbing trend: Sensationalism has become a primary goal for IGs.

It's not that agencies don't still wince at their reports. It is just that the IGs' reports have taken on a tone of exaggerated self-importance. The result is criticism for criticism's sake'and IT procurement has found itself an easy target in IG cross hairs. IGs could examine their own grandmothers' process for baking oatmeal cookies and conclude that there was a lack of proper compliance with the recipe and a critical failure of oversight by Grandpa.

The problem is this kind of criticism is turning IGs into a group that no longer matters. Worse than that, they have actually become a hindrance to good government. And wasn't that their original mission, to enhance good government by weeding out bad actors?

Now their core mission has become filling reports with a maximum amount of criticism in order to grab headlines, and the government's mission has suffered. Their metric for success is quantity of criticism instead of the magnitude of the offense. They are killing innovation, squashing forward-looking management, and otherwise hindering higher levels of government efficiency and effectiveness. Besides, if it was good enough for Herbert Hoover it is good enough for us today.

Granted, auditing is a boring job. So one can understand why they would seek to make it more interesting. And metrics for success are hard to come by unless they find true fraud and abuse'which is rare, even though IGs lead us to believe otherwise. Exaggeration and sensationalism suit their need for job fulfillment, but at the expense of agency mission accomplishment, where a line should be drawn. And many IGs across the federal government have crossed that line.

Look at many recent IG reports on procurement, whether DOD, NASA SEWP, Transportation, GSA or others. We are forced to conclude that every contracting officer in the federal government is inept, lazy, wasteful or a thief. We know that cannot possibly be true, but no one is allowed to audit the IG reports to show how truly exaggerated they have become.

The recent IG report on DOD use of the NASA SEWP contract is perhaps typical: An IG headline declared they had found 98 violations on the 111 SEWP orders reviewed. Peel away just one layer of that onion, and you will see that most of the so-called violations consisted of 'failure to properly document the contract file.' So what? Is the equivalent of contractual jaywalking worth the headline that implied gross violations and negligence on the part of DOD or NASA contracting officers, which is not true? That sensationalism is abuse of authority on the part of the IG.

How do they continue to get away with this?

IGs play word games, using a variety of tools to heighten sensationalism and grab headlines. Their primary and most convenient tool is to declare that there was possible wrongdoing. The headline implies it actually occurred. So the IG has achieved the objective and moves on to the next victim.

Another tool is grouping trivial items with significant ones to distort statistics. They declare that a very high percentage of contract orders reviewed had problems, when only a couple issues were even worth mentioning. An honest approach would highlight the truly relevant deficiencies. Instead, they use gross exaggeration by grouping the large number of extremely minor issues with the few real offenses, and then declare that a high percentage did not pass scrutiny.

They also enjoy using the 'either/or' method of obfuscation. The DOD IG report on Treasury's FedSource program is full of statements declaring boldly that there were X number of contracts with 'inadequate or no' something or other. And given the IG's definitions of 'inadequate,' 'less than fully,' 'potentially,' 'not supported by' and such equivocations'well, you get the picture. Their mincing of words has taken redefining what "is" is to new levels.

The DOD IG recently declared that DOD needs to give preference to internal DOD contracts. Excuse me, but who put the IG in charge of policy development? And why is creating internal DOD contracts for commercial IT products and services good for government? Note that they did not recommend using GSA, whose core mission is to provide commercial items to the entire federal government to promote efficiency. The net effect of this IG report is a retreat into more manpower-intensive and wasteful processes for DOD. At a time when we need DOD personnel to focus on their core mission, the IG believes creating internal contracts to buy laptop computers is more important. That is wasteful. It is not good for government. That is mediocrity in government. And all courtesy of your local IG.

What about the bad actors they have actually flushed out, you ask? Sure, there are a very few, but at what price? Most are not discovered by the IG. Rather, others turn them in and the IG investigates, which is an important function in government. But the current strategy in government contracting offices at DOD, GSA and other agencies is to take such a risk-averse stance that no action can be criticized. Even then, they are still criticized, and this is especially true for IT procurements, which seem to be the primary focus lately.

And if the recent GSA-versus-IG flap showed anything, it showed how the IGs can get their own way by public arm-twisting. The unfolding of events masked the real IG issue at GSA, which is that the IG is not doing their job when it comes to procurement audits. The IG is chartered with performing audits prior to award of GSA Schedules options, which is supposed to take less than three months. Instead, the IG audits routinely take close to a year, during which time the GSA contracting process is frozen. That is why GSA needs to hire vendors to perform the audits. But to the IG, it is all about power. And the IG got what they wanted at GSA; but is that good for government?

The IG focus on headlines serves only their own interests, and the way they achieve their objective is to criticize innovative management. But does the IG hindrance to the mission now exceed the good they accomplish? They have become a threat to good government by deterring innovation, causing agencies to institutionalize inefficiencies and interfering with the agency core missions.

The IG function, as currently performed, is seriously broken. IGs have become what they purport to hate, namely dictatorial, wasteful and a primary cause of institutionalized mediocrity in the federal government. IGs need to reconnect with their mission and promote good government instead of encouraging stagnation by requiring agencies to blindly follow inefficient but IG-tested procedures. It is not the IG that matters. It is the mission that matters.

Neal Fox is the former assistant commissioner for acquisition at GSA. He now manages Neal Fox Consulting. He can be reached at nfox@usa.com

About the Author

Neil Fox is the former assistant commissioner for commercial acquisition at GSA's Federal Supply Service, and is now principal at Neal Fox Consulting.

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