An IG’s lot is not a happy one

Seated at the table with me was Derek Vander Schaaf, at the time the Defense Department’s Inspector General (IG). I was editor-at-large for a monthly defense magazine. We were both speakers at a conference of Defense Department acquisition officers, there to provide outside perspectives on defense procurement — I from the media’s point of view, Vander Schaaf from the IG’s viewpoint. Usually at these kinds of affairs people are eager to talk to the speakers and make contacts. Tables fill up with strangers who readily introduce themselves. But not on this night.
And then it struck me: From an official’s point of view, this was a nightmare come to pass—the IG and the media deep in conversation, obviously conspiring against everyone else in attendance. No one was going to get near that.
An IG—at least one who does his job and takes his role seriously—walks a lonely path. He’s the inside outsider, the official who is part of the bureaucracy and yet outside it, the team member who points out the team’s failings, the speaker of truths no one wants to hear. He’s the person who listens to the whistleblowers who might simply be malcontents, misfits or liars. His most serious task is to investigate and root out waste, fraud and corruption. It’s no way to win a popularity contest.
The DHS experience
During his time at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Clark Kent Ervin, the department’s first IG, was an insistent and vocal critic of DHS’ shortcomings, much to the dismay of the DHS leadership. He pointed out lapses in airport screening procedures, gaps in security, excesses and waste. Many thought he was too harsh on a new bureaucracy that would need several years to develop. Ervin’s response to this was to argue that it was important to get things right from the start, especially in a new department like DHS.
It was hard in the midst of his tenure to know whether Ervin or his critics were right. I must say that he came to the job with very impressive credentials: A graduate of Harvard and Oxford, a Rhodes Scholar and IG of the State Department prior to his stint at DHS. He didn’t strike me as someone delusional, destructive or demented.
Ervin was not kept in his position at DHS at the end of President Bush’s first administration, a decision that some observers attributed to White House unhappiness with his outspokenness. Given his pending retirement, I approached him to do an article for HSToday and was delighted when he agreed. The account that appears this month is free of the formalism of an official IG report. It’s the informed analysis of an inside-outsider.
Fairness, balance and public affairs
Let it also be noted that I didn’t want this to be a one-sided account. I actively solicited official comment from then-Secretary Tom Ridge, requesting comment from his top public affairs officer in person. If there’s no official counterpart to Ervin’s article in this issue, it wasn’t for lack of effort on HSToday’s part.
Indeed, I hope that the new secretary revitalizes the DHS public affairs operation.
In 2004, DHS was noticeably uncommunicative, and I say this not just from the perspective of a single publication. Not only have I heard complaints from journalists but also from frustrated vendors who simply wanted to issue press releases announcing contract awards. DHS needsto better communicate with the American people it serves and protects. It’s in the people’s interest, the media’s interest and the department’s interest.
In the meantime, we will continue to look to the IG’s office to reform DHS from within. I think back to my conversation with Vander Schaaf. He used to act as though he took everything personally. That’s what I asked him at our table: How did he maintain his sense of outrage? Didn’t he ever just get accustomed to some of the natural sloth, ineptitude and bad judgment of an immense bureaucracy?
“You can’t get used to it!” he nearly shouted. “You can’t let people get away with these things! Of course I’m outraged!”
Not a bad attitude for any IG. HST

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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