"Overseeing the overseers" is one way to describe what the office of the inspector general (IG) does for any US government agency.
At the Department of Transportation (DOT), for example, the IG investigates a whole range of activities, from building contractors who use faulty materials to airlines that cut costs on repairs and maintenance to DOT staff who steal office equipment.
As watchdog for the 12 DOT agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Highway Administration, the IG often plays a role in major scandals - the notorious Big Dig project in Boston, for example. However, communications director David Barnes stresses that the IG always seeks to appear balanced - to be providing constructive criticism as opposed to playing "gotcha." Part of that is making sure the rest of the DOT knows about a forthcoming report before it's released publicly, so that no one gets caught off guard.
But avoiding the appearance of grandstanding can be difficult because of the natural reaction by reporters when they hear about new instances of malfeasance.
"I have to sometimes restrain myself and say, 'No, don't put that on page one!' when they're [panting], 'Yeah, great, page one!'" Barnes says. "We make strong recommendations, and reporters tend to pick up on them. I feel obligated to try and de-sensationalize our work, to say, 'Yes, we found some serious issues with this agency, but it's important to note that it is doing some things right.'"
An American University graduate with a bachelor's degree in journalism, Barnes says he's always been interested in journalism and politics, and his career to date reflects that. Barnes began as a political reporter for small newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, later served as press secretary for a New Jersey congressman, and then, among other things, worked as a reporter at a couple of different transportation titles, Traffic World and Transport Topics.
Bloomberg reporter Jonathan Salant, who used to cover the DOT for the AP, says that contrary to some government agencies that force reporters to file Freedom of Information requests to find out about reports, Barnes' office always makes an extra effort to notify journalists about new reports.
"To compare with other agencies I won't name, who just don't want to tell you anything, here's the watchdog who's more than willing to tell you anything," says Salant, who recently became president of the National Press Club. "[David] was a great person to work with; he could even get you through to the boss. I talked to [former IG] Ken Mead for a lot of stories."
Appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, the IG cannot be fired at will by the President, unlike agency secretaries, which gives the IG a degree of independence that is crucial to effective oversight. A new DOT IG, Calvin Scovel, was recently confirmed by the Senate to replace Mead, so Barnes and other members of the communications staff will be meeting with Scovel to work out his philosophy about public outreach.
To date, Barnes says, a big part of his job has been making sure reporters and the public in general understand that the IG's office makes recommendations on problems and potential solutions, but can't order anyone to do anything. Publicity from the media can certainly help the IG office ensure that its recommendations are acted upon and also serves as a kind of deterrent by showing that wrongdoing leads to prosecutions and punishment.
In addition, work done by the IG office's approximately 100 investigators and 250 auditors, who cover a department with 60,000 staffers and an annual budget of $58 billion, can be aided by investigative reporting around the US.
"If reporters look at how money is being spent, oftentimes they'll dig up issues that we subsequently investigate," Barnes says.
Comms director, Dept. of Transportation IG Office
Public affairs officer, DOT IG Office
Senior correspondent, Transport Topics
VP of public affairs, American Trucking Association