John F. Kennedy famously said that the Chinese word for crisis was composed of two characters, one meaning danger and the other meaning opportunity.  The second character, however, has two meanings, and most modern translators think the second character would be better translated as “a changing point”.

Either way, it’s a valid metaphor for what faces many Inspectors General in the days ahead as they respond to the many government actions taken during the Covid-19 epidemic.  Some of the announced investigations pertain to decisions that increased health risk:

Each of these complaints, if substantiated, is an opportunity to recommend better policies for future outbreaks. 

In the coming decade, Inspectors General across the country will also be looking at the many ways money was spent wastefully, both during the rush to respond to the outbreak and in the follow-on efforts to stimulate the economy.  Undoubtedly, their work will collectively protect billions of dollars of taxpayer money. These types of investigations are also excellent opportunities for IG offices to demonstrate to legislators how their offices generate far more savings than their budget.

The biggest impact the crisis will have, however, is that it will uncover bad behavior that was hidden from view in prior years and decades.  Crises have a way of exposing problems that can be papered over or ignored during normal times.  Many Inspectors General offices were set up as a result of major problems being exposed, and more may be set up in the aftermath of Covid-19.

Already, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors is considering setting up an Inspector General’s office for Skilled Nursing Facilities after more than 1,000 residents of these facilities died from Covid-related illnesses.  Right now, this represents more than half of all the deaths in the county.  And despite Los Angeles being the first to announce an IG office targeted toward these facilities, it was not a problem unique to that county.  More than 28,000 nursing home residents have died from Covid-19 at this time, representing one-third of all deaths in the United States.

The shortcomings in handling outbreaks in skilled nursing, food production facilities and prisons across the country have exposed not only planning challenges, but also larger issues related to worker and resident welfare.  The impacts of those issues haven’t been limited to the people inside the walls of those buildings.  In many cases, the outbreaks spread throughout the local population, putting cities and states in a negative light at a time when everyone is watching.

Many of these institutions will be investigated by already-existing offices dedicated to long-term care facilities and agriculture.  But it would hardly be surprising if several states decided to create a separate office dedicated to overseeing these enterprises.  It would be a popular political decision, and it would protect lives – a strong combination of traits in a bill even in states with divided government.  In fact, it’s likely that we’ll hear many positive things said about oversight agencies in general in the coming months. 

These positive comments should be a potent reminder to the public; the vast majority of investigations conducted by Inspectors General offices are not politically charged and have nothing to do with the actions of a particular political appointee.  The primary purpose of an Inspector General is to protect the taxpayer by preventing fraud and helping agencies make better decisions.  To sacrifice those goals in the name of politics would be wasteful, and short-sighted.  

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