Listening to the Watchdogs

2017-02-13T14:08:02+00:00 February 13, 2017|
Inspectors general provide recommendations to help agencies regulate smarter. (Credit: NASA)

(Click to enlarge) Inspectors general provide recommendations to help agencies regulate smarter. (Credit: NASA)

What good is a watchdog if you ignore its barking? Wouldn’t it be great if Fido not only warned you of trouble as it was happening but gave you a heads up about a problem coming down the road?

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing to receive recommendations from their watchdogs – inspectors general – on how federal agencies can, as Chairman John Thune put it, “regulate smarter – protecting public safety and market fairness while fostering economic grown and innovation.” Inspectors general from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Departments of Commerce (DOC), Homeland Security, and Transportation discussed their future plans under the new administration and issues needing attention in their agencies. However, while inspectors typically remain in their posts following an administration transition, it is unclear if these inspectors will be allowed to do so. Ranking Member Bill Nelson (FL) stressed the importance of the independence of the inspectors general, who should only be relieved of their duties for just cause and not because of a change in the presidency. He also highlighted the inspectors general important work, not only detecting fraud, waste, and abuse and ensuring appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, but in “protecting whistleblowers who believe scientific integrity has been compromised.”

Ms. Allison Lerner (Inspector General, NSF) detailed the top four management and performance challenges NSF faces. The first deals with grant administration accountability, ensuring that, as efforts are made to reduce administrative burden on grantees, funds are spent as intended. A second challenge is management of scientific resources in Antarctica under the U.S. Antarctic Program, specifically overseeing financial and logistical support. She also described the complicated challenges of oversight of cooperative agreements for large facility research projects, describing the fundamental challenge as a balance between the “innovative scientific aspects” of the projects and “increased internal management of the business practices.” Finally, Ms. Lerner explained the difficulty of management of non-permanent rotational appointments under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (5 CFR 334), which allows the agency to gain the expertise of scientists working in other organizations but brings a host of challenges, including rising costs.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites, which compromise more than 16 percent of the DOC budget request for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, were a main topic in the testimony of the Honorable Peggy Gustafson (Inspector General, DOC). She laid out the very real scenario of aging equipment, combined with testing delays, that could lead to a gap in critical environmental data provided by these satellites. She also discussed the delicate balance needed to manage the competing interests of commercial and recreational fishing with preserving populations of fish and other marine life, which require the continued development of conservation and management measures dependent upon stock assessments.

Several witnesses covered other issues, including the need for strengthened security of information technology to avoid cyberattacks, specifically within the Antarctic research stations and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and improvements the USCG could make in coordination and communication with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection`s Air and Marine Operations. The inspectors general provided a number of areas to improve the federal agencies they oversee in a hearing with bipartisan agreement — a welcome break from the battles of late on Capitol Hill.