Will Data-Driven Policy Change How IGs Operate?


Inspectors general should be evaluating how successful federal programs are, not just how compliant they are, according to a recent report.  

The federal watchdogs that routinely assess their agencies’ internal operations could do more to make government more efficient, a report argues.

The Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit advocacy group for the federal workforce, and auditing giant Grant Thornton interviewed several auditors, inspectors general and staffers about how having access to more data could transform their watchdog roles, especially if current transparency efforts are successful.

Instead of just ensuring agencies are compliant with existing regulations, inspectors general should think of new ways evaluate whether those programs are successful, respondents said.

“It is the difference between counting the number of people who show up at a job training program, versus examining the number of attendees who get and keep a job after participating in that program,” the report noted.

The report comes shortly after the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, a White House advisory group stemming from legislation co-written by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., shared recommendations for ways agencies should use more data internally. Their proposals included creating a National Secure Data Service, a federal body to advocate for data use while protecting citizens’ privacy. Ryan and Murray subsequently introduced the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which would implement some of these recommendations, including requiring agencies to appoint chief data officers and chief evaluation officers.

The Partnership and Grant Thornton made recommendations applying to all parts of federal agencies, but watchdogs, in particular, can combine “data analysis, institutional knowledge and clear reporting to compel agencies to make recommended changes and improvements. These skills could help individual agencies improve how they execute their missions,” the report said.

Here are a few other takeaways from the report:

Agencies still lack complete data about their internal operations.

The report concluded that most program managers don’t have adequate information to assess the success of programs. The Veterans Health Administration, for instance, didn’t know how many contract physicians it was paying this year, according to the Government Accountability Office. And even when information exists, it’s not always accessible. For example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services wasn’t giving Immigration and Customs Enforcement data about potential human traffickers, the Homeland Security Department’s IG office concluded.

A lack of data forces IGs to focus on the compliance issues instead of broadly evaluating the success of agencies.

Simply measuring whether agencies are compliant with certain laws, instead of examining the outcome of their programs, “may drive agencies to do things that are easy to measure, at the expense of things that are very impactful but whose outcomes are difficult to measure,” one participant in developing the report said.

There’s a personnel problem in IG offices.

Out of 73 offices, 13 have acting IGs, the report found. Those agencies might have a harder time getting their staff to shift their focus away from compliance. That’s partly because “acting IGs are more likely to favor short-term projects that do not rock the boat, essentially serving as a caretaker until a permanent IG takes over,” Danielle Brian, executive director of independent watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight, testified in a 2015 Senate hearing, the report noted.