Biden aims to bolster government watchdog independence

The Biden administration plans to issue new directives to federal agencies Friday to increase cooperation with government watchdogs, calling it a critical step to build public confidence in government as it aims to spend trillions of dollars on new programs.

The offices of inspector general scattered throughout the federal government are intended to act as independent oversight offices, ensuring that agencies are properly spending tax dollars and following the law. But a new memo from the Office of Management and Budget cites a recent internal review that found that many agencies weren't sufficiently encouraging staff members to cooperate with them.

So even as the White House is still working to nominate and confirm new inspectors general at a dozen departments and agencies — including replacing several dismissed by former President Donald Trump — the memo recommends proactive steps to seek and incorporate their oversight.

"As President Biden has made clear, results and accountability go hand-in-hand," acting OMB Director Shalanda Young and Deputy Director Jason Miller wrote in a memo being sent to agency and department heads Friday, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News. "To deliver results for all Americans, now and in the years to come, the Federal Government must undertake its work, and support appropriate oversight of its activities, in a manner deserving of public trust."

Many of the steps called for in the memo mirror those the administration has taken in implementing the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief law Biden signed in March.

Gene Sperling, the White House's American Rescue Plan coordinator, said the oversight is also modeled on how Biden worked to ensure that the stimulus money approved during the Obama administration was spent properly.

Following Biden's advice, Sperling met with all 19 inspectors general who serve on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee in his first week as coordinator, and he has had weekly meetings with its leadership since. He will address all 46 inspectors general involved in pandemic-related spending this month.

"He said, 'My view is that you want to get their advice early, and if something is going wrong you want to be the first to know,'" Sperling said, recalling Biden's advice.

Sperling held what have become known as "Gold Standard" meetings with agency staff members, the corresponding inspectors general and representatives of other oversight panels to review new or expanded pandemic-related programs, like the Paycheck Protection Program and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

The new directives hope to replicate that process. Officials credited the process with identifying and troubleshooting issues as they arose, like fraudulent unemployment insurance claims.

The new directives also call on agencies to implement best practices to protect whistleblowers.

"The reason for this is we want these programs to work. We have various roles, and we believe if we do it, we're going to get better outcomes," said Jason Miller, the deputy OMB director for management, who is also the executive chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

Miller said one of his first jobs was to rebuild and repair relationships between agencies and their inspectors general after the Trump administration. Although inspectors general are meant to be independent auditors, Trump increasingly took aim at some late in his administration, removing or replacing four in just two months. His dismissal of the intelligence community's inspector general ultimately helped trigger his first impeachment.

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