About the US Inspectors General

The US Government's Built-In Watchdogs

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A U.S. federal inspector general (IG) is the head of an independent, non-partisan organization established within each executive branch agency assigned to audit the agency’s operation in order to discover and investigate cases of misconduct, waste, fraud and other abuse of government procedures occurring within the agency.

Within the federal agencies are politically independent individuals called Inspectors General who are responsible for ensuring that the agencies operate efficiently, effectively and legally. When it was reported in October 2006 that Department of Interior employees wasted $2,027,887.68 worth of taxpayer time annually surfing sexually explicit, gambling, and auction websites while at work, it was the Interior Department's own Office of Inspector General that conducted the investigation and issued the report.

The Mission of the Office of Inspector General

Established by the Inspector General Act of 1978, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) examines all actions of a government agency or military organization. Conducting audits and investigations, either independently or in response to reports of wrongdoing, the OIG ensures that the agency's operations are in compliance with the law and general established policies of the government. Audits conducted by the OIG are intended to ensure the effectiveness of security procedures or to discover the possibility of misconduct, waste, fraud, theft, or certain types of criminal activity by individuals or groups related to the agency's operation. Misuse of agency funds or equipment is often revealed by OIG audits.

There are currently 73 offices of US inspectors general, far more than the initial 12 offices created by the Inspector General Act of 1978. Along with administrative staff and several financial and procedural auditors, each office employs special agents—criminal investigators who are often armed.

The work of the IG offices involves detecting and preventing fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement of the government programs and operations within their parent agencies or organizations. Investigations conducted by the IG offices may target internal government employees or external government contractors, grant recipients, or recipients of loans and subsidies offered through federal assistance programs. 

To help them carry out their investigative role, Inspectors General have the authority to issue subpoenas for information and documents, administer oaths for taking testimony, and can hire and control their own staff and contract personnel. The investigative authority of Inspectors General is limited only by certain national security and law enforcement considerations.

How Inspectors General Are Appointed and Removed

For the Cabinet-level agencies, Inspectors General are appointed, without regard to their political affiliation, by the President of the United States and must be approved by the Senate. Inspectors General of the Cabinet-level agencies can be removed only by the President. In other agencies, known as "designated federal entities," like Amtrak, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Federal Reserve, the agency heads appoint and remove Inspectors General. Inspectors General are appointed based on their integrity and experience in:

  • Accounting, auditing, financial analysis
  • Law, management analysis, public administration
  • Investigations

Who Oversees Inspectors General?

While by law, Inspectors General are under the general supervision of the agency head or deputy, neither the agency head nor the deputy can prevent or prohibit an Inspector General from conducting an audit or investigation.

The conduct of the Inspectors General is overseen by the Integrity Committee of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency (PCIE).

How Do Inspectors General Report Their Findings?

When an agency's Office of Inspector General (OIG) identifies cases of egregious and flagrant problems or abuses within the agency, the OIG immediately notifies the agency head of the findings. The agency head is then required to forward the OIG's report, along with any comments, explanations, and corrective plans, to Congress within seven days.

The Inspectors General also send semiannual reports of all their activities for the past six months to Congress.

All cases involving suspected violations of federal laws are reported to the Department of Justice, via the Attorney General.

Brief History and Presidential Friction

The first Office of Inspector General was established by Congress in 1976 as a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) specifically to eliminate waste and fraud in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. On October 12, 1978, the Inspector General (IG) Act established Offices of Inspector General in 12 additional federal agencies. In 1988, the IG Act was amended to create 30 additional OIGs at Designated Federal Entities, mostly relatively small agencies, boards, or commissions.

While they are essentially non-partisan, the inspectors generals’ investigations into the actions of the executive branch agencies have often brought them into conflict with presidential administrations.

When Republican President Ronald Reagan first took office in 1981, he fired all 16 inspectors general that had been appointed by his Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter, explaining that he intended to appoint his own. When the politically split Congress emphatically objected, Regan agreed to re-appoint 5 of Carter’s inspectors general.

In 2009, Democratic President Barack Obama fired Corporation for National and Community Service inspector general Gerald Walpin, saying he had lost confidence in the George W. Bush appointee. When Congress demanded an explanation, Obama cited an incident in which Walpin was “disoriented” during a board meeting of the Corporation, which had caused the board to call for his dismissal.

Republican President Donald Trump, in what Democrats called a “war on the watchdogs,” dismissed five inspectors general during six weeks in April and May 2020. In the most controversial firing, Trump criticized Intelligence Community inspector general Michael Atkinson, who he called “not a big Trump fan,” for having done a “terrible job” in taking a “fake report” to Congress. In the report, Atkinson had referred to the whistleblower complaint of the Trump–Ukraine scandal, which had been largely confirmed by other evidence and testimony. Trump also replaced acting Health and Human Services inspector general Christi Grimm, calling her independently confirmed report on shortages of medical supplies in American hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic “wrong,” fake,” and “her opinion.” 

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Longley, Robert. "About the US Inspectors General." ThoughtCo, Dec. 5, 2020, thoughtco.com/about-the-office-of-inspector-general-3322191. Longley, Robert. (2020, December 5). About the US Inspectors General. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/about-the-office-of-inspector-general-3322191 Longley, Robert. "About the US Inspectors General." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/about-the-office-of-inspector-general-3322191 (accessed June 5, 2023).