The Economist explains
MANY QUESTIONS raised by the Capitol insurrection on January 6th are political. But one is operational: how could a mob so easily breach the halls of Congress? Last month Americans got some answers from the Capitol Police’s inspector-general, Michael Bolton. His investigation found that communication errors, defective equipment and lapses of judgment hamstrung the agency’s response to the uprising. In one case, officers’ riot shields shattered upon impact because they had not been stored in a climate-controlled room. Were it not for the inspector-general, these details may have never come to light. Mr Bolton’s title is impressive, but what do America’s inspectors-general actually do?
Inspectors-general first emerged as military officers tasked with ensuring troops were up to scratch. In 1668, King Louis XIV of France appointed two to audit his infantry and cavalry divisions, setting the precedent for other European armies. A century later in America, the Continental Congress established the post for its army. The second to assume it, Frederick William Augustus von Steuben—a Prussian captain recruited by Benjamin Franklin—displayed such skill in the job that the United States Army regards him as the “Father of the Inspector General System”.
Not until the 1970s did other parts of the government acquire inspectors-general. The Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s resignation, the Vietnam war and revelations that intelligence agencies had spied on Americans all sent public trust in government plummeting. Inspectors-general were created to improve government performance, ferret out malfeasance and in so doing restore public confidence. In 1976 President Gerald Ford laid the groundwork when he created a watchdog position for the Department of Health, Welfare and Education (now the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services) to address mounting complaints of fraud in the health-care system. Two years later Jimmy Carter signed into law the Inspectors General Act of 1978, establishing accountability offices in 12 federal departments and agencies. Mr Carter said the watchdogs were “perhaps the most important new tools in the fight against fraud.”
Today there are 75 inspectors-general across the federal government. The president nominates some; agency heads appoint others; and Congress can create posts for specific purposes (for instance, the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, appointed to ensure federal relief funds are properly spent). Presidential appointees must be confirmed by the Senate. They all have access to sensitive records, and presidentially appointed inspectors-general can carry guns and make arrests. In a sense, inspectors-general are the government’s auditors. The law gives them broad powers and liberties to audit and investigate agencies to uncover fraud, waste and abuse. They also propose policy changes to improve faulty processes and produce reports on their findings, which are usually required by law to be submitted to Congress and made public. In 2020 federal inspectors-general recommended policy changes that would result in savings of $33.3bn, according to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which brings together all the watchdogs.
The mission of inspectors general—to be an internal, independent, nonpartisan check on power—inevitably creates tensions with senior officials and the subjects of their audits. During his presidency Donald Trump sacked five appointed or acting inspectors-general, some purportedly because they published reports he disagreed with or began investigations into cabinet members. At their best, inspectors-general identify problems and improve governance. But their recommendations often get ignored, according to the Project on Government Oversight, a non-profit organisation. It suggests that better tracking of the government’s responses to their findings could change this. Mr Bolton, the Capitol Police’s watchdog, recommended a bevy of changes to prevent another incident like the insurrection. The department, he told lawmakers, needs to stop thinking of itself as a reactive police force and more as a proactive protective agency, and must “honour those officers who have given their lives…by making hard changes”.