A government organization that saves more than it costs is something of a rarity in the United States.
With a budget of $243 million and with more than $2 billion in taxpayer dollars saved in the past seven years, in the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction's office, that type of accountability is not just common practice, it's the organization's mission.
"We're a little bit different because we're looking over a pot of money being handled by the Department of State and the Department of Defense," said Ginger Cruz, the deputy special inspector general for Iraq Reconstruction, in a lecture Monday afternoon in the Integrated Science and Technology building.
In a policy-driven speech geared primarily for international affairs and political science students, Cruz and Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq Reconstruction, talked about the purpose and role of the inspector general in the reconstruction of Iraq and the future of reconstruction projects.
"When I was there a rocket had exploded about 100 meters to my left," said Bowen, who has been on 29 trips to the war-torn country. "It's a tough place to do stabilization reconstruction."
After the fall of Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein on Dec. 15, 2003, the focus of United States' operations in Iraq turned from combat to reconstruction efforts, Bowen said.
Since then, the U.S. Congress has allocated $56.81 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq, according to the October 2010 SIGIR quarterly report. The purpose of SIGIR, according to Cruz, is twofold: to audit the allocation of the nearly $60 billion in taxpayer dollars and make critical recommendations about Iraq reconstruction policy to eliminate wasteful taxpayer spending.
"When you do 170 audits and spend seven years asking questions, inevitably you begin to see patterns," Cruz said. "We've built a lot of things but it's not 50 to 60 billion dollars worth of stuff."
Those patterns turned into policy recommendations and lessons about efficient ways to rebuild Iraq. SIGIR has identified a theme lacking in long-term planning and strategy, weak communication with Iraqis and little inter-governmental organization integration.
"When you really start thinking about the scope, here's an office that cuts out more than the new constrained budget is doing," said Scott Dudley, a junior international affairs major, comparing the savings of SIGIR and the House Republicans' budget proposal for fiscal year 2011.
Karim Altaii, an Iraqi native and integrated science and technology professor, sees the reconstruction effort in Iraq as unsuccessful because of a lack of accountability and oversight.
"When it comes to spending money, many entities in Iraq tell you how much they spent and where but there's no accountability," Altaii said after the lecture on Tuesday. "Where did the money go, how is it spent and is it effective?"
Through its audits and program critiques of reconstruction programs, SIGIR specifically identified a poor anticipation of problems associated with construction in a volatile country.
"If you're going to build a water plant in Iraq, you're going to get shot," Cruz said of hypothetically building a $30 million water treatment facility. "Pretty soon you're going to spend $200 million. Is it worth it?"
While this was just a hypothetical situation, SIGIR audits have identified, and in some instances, halted funding for construction projects like the Fallujah water waste system and the Khan Bahni S'aad prison.
"A lot of times we just built things to just build things," Cruz said. "We found a lot of waste that didn't result in a political outcome."
In Fallujah, the water waste treatment facility grew into a six-year project costing more than $90 million, about three times the projected cost and the $40 million Khan Bahni S'aad prison project was never finished.
"The Iraqis call it the whale in the desert," Bowen said of the correction facility.
Jordan Descovich, another international affairs major, found the grand scope of money wasted surprising.
"That's a lot of taxpayer money and it's been spent poorly in the past and those people are doing their best to really stabilize Iraq," said Descovich, a junior.
While SIGIR primarily conducts audits of reconstruction projects, it also has the power to launch criminal investigations and prosecutions.
Through those prosecutorial powers, the organization has recovered approximately $140 million in cash from criminals, many of whom are either military or government contractors, who defraud the government.
To aid in SIGIR's investigative powers, the Attorney General allows the organization to use its own attorneys to speed up investigations and indictments, rather than use the typical Department of Justice prosecutors, Bowen said.
As of November 2010, SIGIR investigations relating to corruption, wasteful spending and fraud have led to 31 arrests, 54 indictments and 44 convictions, according to the October 2010 quarterly report.
"We need to find a system that will plan and execute so we don't waste the taxpayer dollars," Bowen said.
That system, Bowen believes, is legislation soon to be introduced in the U.S. Congress as a proposal to create a central department or the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations. That office would coordinate the efforts of multiple agencies, audit and criticize reconstruction efforts and create a doctrine for stability operations.
"There's no responsible agency to take the lead," Altaii said. "When it comes to accountability, everybody is pointing the finger at each other."
Cruz said other countries, like Great Britain, Germany, Canada, Australia and Sweden, have created offices and specific doctrines for reconstruction planning and resource allocation.
In support of the USOCO policy proposal, Bowen has testified before Congress to advocate for legislation that would create a permanent department to oversee all reconstruction operations.
"If you look at the issue of stability operations, right now the United States government doesn't have the capacity or capability to put together their best effort to tackle these issues," Cruz said.
Contact John Sutter at email@example.com.