OIG: Piling on but Missing the Point

By now most everyone knows of the pressure coming from several quarters, including the U.S. Senate, for postal service inspector general Karla W. Corcoran to resign. The gist of the complaints against her dealt with what were called “bizarre” attempts at management team-building exercises. Before getting into the charges, let’s discuss the background of the Office of Inspector General.

The OIG was authorized by a law enacted in 1996. The inspector general is appointed by and reports to the nine presidential-appointed U.S. Postal Service governors. Many (if not all) Cabinet departments and federal bureaus have inspectors general who function independent of their department’s management structures. Congress thought that the USPS, which did not have this independent inspection function, needed it.

According to its mission statement, the OIG aims “… to prevent, detect and report fraud, waste and program abuse, and promote efficiency in the operations of the postal service. The OIG has ‘oversight’ responsibility for all activities of the Postal Inspection Service, a major federal law enforcement agency.” The OIG has the authority to “conduct audits and investigations, take sworn statements and issue subpoenas.”

Corcoran was selected by the governors to be the first USPS inspector general, and she took office Jan. 6, 1997. She came to the postal service with an impressive background. In her prior position, she was assistant auditor general of field activities of the Air Force Audit Agency. She is both a certified internal auditor and an attorney.

Starting with a blank sheet, though aware of inspector general organizations at other agencies, she built the postal service’s OIG into a staff of 725 with a budget of $117 million. Presumably she developed the staff and was set to do the job Congress wanted.

To me, the questions are: Was she doing the job the governors wanted and expected? And were they monitoring her activities?

What has prompted calls for Corcoran’s removal were communications to several senators complaining about team-building exercises that OIG staff engaged in.

I have been personally involved in team-building exercises. From afar and from up close these exercises can seem silly. However, among their purposes is to develop a relationship between team members that usually does not occur in a business environment. Members of a business team need to be able to communicate honestly about business situations. Team-building exercises can foster such needed honest, non-bureaucratic communication.

What I find fascinating is that complaints concerning these exercises went to Congress. I’d be interested to learn whether these complaints ever went to the governors, the group to whom the OIG presumably reported.

In complaints to Congress, much has been made of the OIG’s activities. Was “fraud, waste or abuse” uncovered? I’m in no position to determine that. If it wasn’t there, it would have been difficult to uncover it.

But I’d prefer to focus on a small issue dealing with the OIG. That is the Semiannual Report to Congress of the OIG. The report itself is a classic example of “waste and abuse.”

The report that I’m looking at is April 1-Sept. 30, 2002. However, this semiannual report resembles all the other OIG reports that I’ve seen. It is 120 pages, weighs just over one pound and is printed on magazine-quality gloss paper.

It provides an interesting contrast to the postal service’s own FY 2001 annual report. That report is 52 pages, weighs 5.4 ounces and is printed on recycled paper. The USPS annual report is consistent with today’s corporate annual reports. That is, modest, basic, keep to the facts with low-cost printing and paper.

The OIG semiannual report is a throwback to when cost wasn’t a consideration. Indeed, much of the report appears to be a sales pitch. I’d speculate that a significant portion of the OIG report could have been omitted with no effect on the content that related to significant OIG activities.

Is it nitpicking to complain about the cost of creating and printing a report? Every CEO that I’ve known paid attention to the “little things.” They thought that if the little things weren’t taken care of, the big things could go awry as well.

It would be interesting to hear the governors’ take on the contrast between the content and cost of the USPS annual report and a typical OIG semiannual report, particularly since the USPS pays OIG’s $117 million budget.

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