Report: Federal whistleblowers don't sense letup in agency retaliation

Tuesday - 11/15/2011, 8:39am EST

By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

For federal employees alleging serious agency wrongdoing, blowing the whistle can often feel like a David and Goliath battle.

There are a number of barriers that don't just give federal whistleblowers pause, but in many cases actually stop them from going to a superior or the public with their concerns.

A new report from the Merit Systems Protection Board, "Blowing the Whistle: Barriers to Federal Employees Making Disclosures," paints a complex portrait of when federal employees blow the whistle as well as their perceptions of both protections in their favor and actions taken against them in retaliation.

The report consisted of surveys of federal employees from a slew of agencies and department and compared them to a similar survey conducted in 1992. MSPB addressed the report to President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders.

Increased retaliation?

While the perception of agency wrongdoing by employees has actually declined in the nearly 20 years since the first report, the perception of retaliation for speaking out about such wrongdoing has not seen a similar decline.

In both studies, about the same number of respondents — 36 percent — said they faced retaliation or the threat of retaliation for reporting misconduct.

While the overall number remained the same, the responses to the 2010 survey showed federal employees perceived "dramatic increases" in some forms of retaliation.

For example, the perception that disclosing agency wrongdoing led to an employee being fired increased by nine times. The perception of promotion denials and suspensions more than doubled.

However, outing a whisteblowing didn't always lead to retaliation or other "unpleasant" actions, according to the report. The number of respondents who reported that no action had been taken against them for exposing wrongdoing increased to 44 percent from about 37 percent in 1992. And, the perception that agency higher-ups were angry with whistleblowers declined from nearly 39 percent to 28 percent.

Also, more respondents indicated that they were able to remain anonymous after reporting wrongdoing. The number of whistleblowers that were identified by their agency dropped to 42.5 percent, from 53.1 percent in 1992.

Training about whistleblower protections has also increased. However, despite being required by law, the MSPB report found many employees never received such training.

Who do whistleblowers turn to?

Contrary to pop culture depictions of federal employees sharing secrets with reporters, most federal whistleblowers felt more comfortable sharing their concerns with government watchdogs.

For example, agency inspector generals, the Office of Special Counsel and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration all scored highly in terms helping keep whistleblowers anonymous and taking their allegations seriously.

Congress and the media, on the other hand, were rated much lower on both counts. The report suggested federal employees may have more faith in other federal employees to investigate claims of wrongdoing.

The report also mentioned the generally low regard for Congress and the news media held by the general populace.

Why they blow the whistle

The survey found the most important factor in determining whether an employee would report wrongdoing was not an employee's own punishment or reward but whether they felt exposing a wrongdoing would save lives.

For example, Paul Hardy, a regulatory review officer for the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, found radiation exposure problems with a breast cancer screening device. When the Food and Drug Administration prepared to approve the device anyway, Hardy went to the media, He received a negative performance review that ultimately led to his firing last month.

The Office of Special Counsel intervened on Hardy's behalf and the MSPB issued a stay of suspension.

MSPB Chair Susan Tsui Grundmann, in a foreword to the new report, wrote that agencies play a major role in whether employees decide to report wrongdoing. "The most important step that agencies can take to prevent wrongdoing may be the creation of a culture that supports whistleblowing," she added.

Changing the culture

In addition to OSC's recent interventions, Congress has also sought to strengthen whistleblower protections.

Last month, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Reform Committee approved the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2011. The law would extend protection to the intelligence and national security communities and block agencies from revoking security clearances in retaliation for protected whistleblower activities.

While such laws are essential, MSPB said in its report, the shift in agency culture is just as important.