Morale Soaring at Pentagon Watchdog Agency Singled Out by Trump

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump may have frustrations about the Pentagon’s inspector general, but for the agency’s 1,800 workers, morale is on the rise.

The federal government’s latest survey of worker satisfaction showed a marked increase among staff at the independent Defense Department watchdog, with 68 percent of employees calling it a “good place to work” compared with 30 percent in 2015, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

The inspector general’s office takes on high-profile reviews of the Pentagon’s performance, such as the effectiveness of U.S. operations in Syria and Iraq and critical weapons systems including Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 jet. The IG’s reports are a key tool that lawmakers and the public can use to ensure tax dollars are well-spent, but their publication can rankle national security officials all the way up to the Oval Office.

Trump’s Complaint

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan got a taste of Trump’s frustration about the reports at his first Cabinet meeting last week, even though under law, the Pentagon watchdog reports to Congress, not the Defense Department leadership.

Morale Soaring at Pentagon Watchdog Agency Singled Out by Trump

“For these reports to be released -- to be given out, essentially, forget about the public --given out to the the enemy, is insane. And I don’t want it to happen anymore, Mr. Secretary, you understand that,” Trump said.

It wasn’t clear whether Trump meant to refer to the Pentagon’s inspector general or to the separate Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction. That office has been known for its sharp criticism of the war effort there.

The Pentagon inspector general’s latest quarterly report was widely cited after Trump announced his initial decision to pull 2,000 troops from Syria. The president said that Islamic State “is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. We’re coming home!”

But the IG’s report, based on U.S. Central Command figures, said that as many as 30,000 of the terrorists fighters may still remain in Iraq and Syria.

Fine’s Background

The turnaround in morale at the Pentagon watchdog’s office overlaps with the tenure of Acting Inspector General Glenn Fine, who had spent 11 years in the inspector general’s role at the Justice Department. His work there included reports on President George W. Bush’s firing of four U.S. Attorneys and on politically driven hirings in the department’s civil rights division. His audits also included one in 2010 alleging FBI misuses of national security letters to obtain telephone records.

One of the most influential reports that Fine’s team compiles in his current job is a compendium of “open recommendations” -- essentially unresolved issues -- that includes a summary of 25 high-priority issues. Those highlights often draw particularly scrutiny with the Pentagon and Congress and can become the subject of public hearings if not addressed.

Fine had a big hurdle to overcome in boosting morale at the Defense Department IG’s office: Its Virginia-area employees, including senior officials, are headquartered far from the Pentagon at an austere, remote location called the Mark Center, accessible only by car and shuttle bus. The agency was moved as a result of a 2005 Base Closure and Alignment Commission decision. The previous location was within sight of the Pentagon and about a 10-minute walk.

In the latest federal survey, senior leaders on the inspector general’s team scored a major increase in worker satisfaction on the question of whether they “generate high levels of motivation and commitment.” Only 25 percent of respondents responded in the affirmative in the 2015 survey; the number jumped to 58 percent in the new survey.

Agency participation in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey increased by 15 percentage points this year over 2017, to 71 percent, Fine’s chief of staff Steve Stebbins said in an email. “The survey helps us see ourselves and identify areas for improvement, so the more participants the better,” he said.

Pentagon Audit

In one of the more ambitious projects undertaken by Fine’s office, his team managed the effort to audit Pentagon financial statements, which included more than 1,000 auditors from major public accounting firms.

According to a report released Tuesday by Fine’s agency that summarized the audit findings, the Defense Department lost out on $28 billion in fiscal 2018 because it let authority to spend the funds expire.

“The road to a clean opinion is not short; it will not happen immediately,” Fine said. “Continued progress requires sustained effort and attention throughout the Department.”

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