The Power of Accountability

Offices of Inspector General at the State and Local Levels

Robin J. Kempf

Migrant children separated from their parents.
A scheme to defraud Cook County using property tax breaks.
An undisclosed thirty-year business relationship between city officials in Baltimore.

These are the sorts of headlines regularly generated by offices of inspector general (OIGs)—bureaucratic units dedicated to government accountability that are commonly independent of the agencies they are charged with overseeing. In 1976, OIGs were virtually unheard of and were largely at the federal level, but today there are more than 170 OIGs overseeing state and local government entities. Why have OIGs been so widely adopted, and what do they do? How do they contribute to accountability, and what are their limitations? In The Power of Accountability Robin J. Kempf sets out to address these questions with empirical data and to examine the conflicts that have led to variations in the design and implementation of OIGs. In doing so she explores the power of the concept of the inspector general: an institutional model for keeping subnational government units accountable to the public.

“Robin Kempf walks us step-by-step through the considerations involved in creating offices of inspectors general (OIGs) and in doing so provides us with a rich account—as ethnographic as it is statistically informed—of the institutionalization of one of our primary contemporary modes of public accountability. Using a rich variety of methods, she tells the story of how OIGs come into being and of why and how this model of institutional accountability has spread so widely across states. Her compelling account begs questions about the effectiveness of such models and will be a reference point for future scholars of accountability.”

—Nadia Hilliard, author of The Accountability State: US Federal Inspectors General and the Pursuit of Democratic Integrity

As more and more government entities have created offices of inspector general, practitioners in this developing field have recommended an archetypal structure for these agencies that assures their authority and independence. Why then, The Power of Accountability asks, have so many states and localities incorporated significant deviations from this recommended model in their design? Through an extensive review of government websites, laws, and ordinances; original surveys of the identified OIGs; legislative histories; and interviews with thirty-eight OIG staff in eight states, Kempf analyzes why OIGs have proliferated, why and how they work differently in various jurisdictions, and what effect these variations in design have on the effectiveness of OIGs as a mechanism of accountability.

The ever-expanding call for accountability in government drives the increasing demand for offices of inspector general, which necessarily entails intense political maneuvering. The Power of Accountability is a uniquely useful resource for judging whether, under what circumstances, and how well OIGs fulfill their intended purpose and serve the public interest.

Funding for this work was provided by a grant from the Office for the Advancement of Research at John Jay College.

About the Author

Robin J. Kempf is assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, University of New York.

Additional Titles in the Studies in Government and Public Policy Series