One of the rare opportunities that investigators have to shine a light on their important work is when they present summaries of their agency’s work to legislative committees. The politicians sitting on these committees often take these opportunities to applaud the waste and fraud uncovered by investigators.
Most investigators aren’t attention seekers by nature. But news coverage of these political interactions can bolster public support for investigative agencies. That public support is valuable when agency leaders need to request enhanced legal powers, justify a budget increase or push back against a high-ranking official’s interference with their work. That makes these interactions both valuable and important.
Unfortunately, not all political interactions are valuable. Among the most damaging things politicians can do to an investigative agency is to attempt to weaponize it against political enemies. That’s why it’s never fun for an investigative agency leader to receive a “public letter” from a politician, especially when it’s clear that the agency isn’t really the letter’s target audience.
Unfortunately, investigative team leaders (and Inspectors General in particular) are frequent recipients of these letters. Representatives and Senators from both parties are quick to publicly “ask” for an investigation if they think it will bring more attention to an opposing party’s political firestorm.
Perception and Reality
Of course, if credible accusations are forwarded to an investigative agency, and it’s within the agency’s mandate to investigate them, it will do so. The political firestorms referenced in these letters often do include allegations that are credible, and sometimes improper behavior is uncovered. Skilled investigators will draw conclusions and make recommendations without consideration of the pressure being put on them by political operatives.
It still doesn’t look good when an investigative agency concludes improper behavior after being “asked” to do so by a politician. And it doesn’t help the optics any when the opposing party points to the political letter and alleges that the investigation’s findings, too, are political.
Many people will see through all this posturing. But some won’t. What can agency leaders do to minimize the appearance of being weaponized by politicians?
Here are three good places to start.
Stick to the Mission
Politicians sometimes attempt to drag non-partisan civil servants into their battles during questioning after they offer testimony. When these questions are worded carefully, it can be difficult to answer them without it seeming like you’re taking a position on a bill or law.
In these cases, your best defense is your agency’s mandate – most investigators are mandated only to fight waste, fraud and abuse, and agency leaders are neither required or expected to take policy positions. Most questions implying a particular political position is good or bad should go unanswered, as they fall outside of the agency’s mandate.
In cases where on-topic and off-topic questions are paired, it may make sense to separate them and answer only the relevant half. For instance, investigators can say a decision doesn’t meet the legal definition of waste without saying whether it’s a good use of taxpayer money.
Run a Tight Ship
Powerful people have powerful friends. Agency members under investigation might look to their friends in the executive or legislative branch to help undermine your credibility by attacking you publicly.
This is why investigators work so hard to maintain impartiality – and also the perception of impartiality. It’s critical to have processes in place to ensure that each case is handled according to predefined rules and workflows. It’s also important to have documentation that supports that impartiality, so that none of your decisions are ruled arbitrary and your recommended remedies aren’t ruled disproportionate.
Finally, do what you can to keep your team united. Disagreements within the team can open you up to accusations of being a difficult person – especially if those disagreements turn into public battles.
Take the Time to Praise Improvement
When an opponent does attempt to drag you through the mud, it helps to have people who will publicly defend your fairness and objectivity. That’s just one of many reasons to stay on good terms with both agency leadership and oversight bodies whenever it’s possible to do it. One important way to do this is by providing praise to agency officials (and oversight bodies) when the praise is warranted.
Investigative agencies can easily be seen as overly confrontational or critical if leaders don’t make a conscious effort to offer praise when it’s warranted. Investigations are generally started to substantiate allegations of bad behavior. The alleged behavior may be substantiated, or it may not – but few investigations end with any public service awards being issued.
There are plenty of situations when investigative executives can offer praise. Sometimes, audits don’t uncover any major issues. Recommendations from previous investigations or audits are sometimes swiftly implemented. Even when mistakes are made, sometimes agency executives are quick to acknowledge them and make earnest efforts to address them. And while oversight bodies can ask tough questions and offer plenty of criticism, they can also ensure you have the resources that you need to get your job done.
Make sure that you take these opportunities to offer acknowledgement and thanks. It may pay dividends if you find your agency being attacked in the future.
To learn how CMTS can help your agency document, complete and report on cases more efficiently, call us at 855-636-5361 or email us at Team_CMTS@MyCMTS.com.