Is hike in whistleblower claims a sign of progress or growing mistrust?

Tuesday - 5/20/2014, 2:10am EDT

Susan Tsui Grundmann, chair, Merit Systems Protection Board, speaks with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp

Download mp3

Carolyn Lerner, head, Office of Special Counsel, speaks with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp

Download mp3

Shirine Moazed, chief, OSC's Washington field office, speaks with Francis Rose

Download mp3

Not quite two years ago, President Barack Obama signed into law a sweeping update to whistleblower protections for civilian federal employees.

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act expanded the authority of both the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board to review employees' claims of agency wrongdoing and made it easier to discipline agency officials who retaliate against whistleblowers.

Both agencies have seen their caseloads skyrocket since the law went into effect.

But are the growing claims of retaliation evidence of a crackdown on whistleblowing employees or that more employees actually feel comfortable coming forward to report agency misconduct?

The heads of both OSC and MSPB told Federal News Radio as part of the special report, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees , that their increasing workloads could actually be a sign of progress — that more employees feel protected now to make disclosures.

"If people can come forward and report waste, fraud or abuse — or health and safety problems — it makes our government stronger," said Carolyn Lerner, head of the OSC, in an interview with Federal Drive hosts Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. "When we have an environment and an atmosphere where employees are rewarded instead of punished for coming forward, I think that creates a better culture and it certainly creates a more effective government."

Still, an exclusive Federal News Radio survey reveals a wide chasm of trust remains when it comes to feds blowing the whistle at work. Just 16 percent of respondents to the survey said they felt protected enough to report waste, fraud or abuse at their agencies even with the recent changes in law.

"Retaliation for whistleblowing is alive and well, despite supposed legal protections," one respondent said.

Agencies hit with wave of new whistleblower claims

Carolyn Lerner

Lerner said OSC has seen an incredible uptick in its caseload over the last year or so as more employees come to the agency alleging that they've been retaliated against for reporting agency misconduct.

Very often, "after somebody blows the whistle, the terms or conditions of their employment change," Lerner said. "It can be something like a hostile work environment. It can be up to and including termination."

So far, in fiscal 2014, the agency has received more than 1,700 complaints of prohibited personnel practices, about half of which involve retaliation for whistleblowing, she said.

Lerner's agency wasn't the only one to be hit with an increased workload following recent changes in the law.

Whistleblower claims filed with MSPB have more than doubled in recent years, according to the board's chairwoman, Susan Tsui Grundmann.

But there may be more than the new law at work that explains the rise in cases, she said.

"The reason why I suspect we're seeing more claims may have less to do with changes in the law and more to do with a greater awareness of a federal employee's rights to file in this area," she told Federal Drive hosts Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

For one thing, whistleblower organizations and good-government groups have helped raise awareness of whistleblowing concerns, she said.

Agencies are also attempting to do their part.

Susan Grundmann

"At the same time, agencies are a lot sharper in terms of getting the word out, training people [on] what's protected, what's not protected and your venue to redress your claims," Grundmann said.

Do agencies' whistleblower practices pass muster?

OSC runs training workshops to brief managers on their responsibilities under the whistleblower laws and to educate employees about their rights, including the fact that retaliation against whistleblowers is a prohibited personnel practice.

The ultimate goal of OSC's outreach efforts is to change the conversation — the climate — around whistleblowing.

"No one likes to be criticized; no one likes to feel like they are being called out for doing something wrong," Lerner said. "But the more we can create a climate where disclosures are viewed as ultimately a good thing, as an employee trying to do what's right for the agency and for the government and, frankly, for our country, the better things will be. If we can help agencies create that climate of openness where employees feel like coming forward as valued, that will help trust."

That will also have a very practical impact, she suggested.

"I'm convinced that more education and outreach will help prevent misunderstandings and mistakes and, ultimately, result in fewer complaints needing to be filed in the first place."

Shirine Moazed, chief of OSC's Washington, D.C., field office, oversees a team responsible for training federal managers and ensuring an agency's whistleblower practices pass muster.

Moazed said the trainings emphasize that education is an essential step in preventing whistleblower retaliation — and other prohibited practices — and that such education must start at the top.

"So, if the head of the agency and the head of the components make it very significant that their supervisors be trained and train others on the prohibitions against whistleblower retaliation, that's something that's going to generate interest and understanding throughout the agency," she told In Depth with Francis Rose.

'There are no real protections in place'

But despite the recent changes to law and the outreach efforts across government, it appears many would-be whistleblowers still don't feel protected enough to disclose potential wrongdoing. Just 14 percent of respondents to an exclusive Federal News Radio survey agreed that there are enough protections in place for whistleblowers to feel safe to report waste, fraud and abuse.

"In print and in theory, yes, there are enough protections in place for federal whistleblowers," one respondent said. "In reality, there is not because of the real possibility of retaliation from management and/or the agency."

Another respondent presented an even gloomier perspective.

"There are no real protections in place. It is all lip service. All the employees who have come forward in recent memory have their careers destroyed ... or they were punished with career-ending reassignments."

While fewer than 22 percent of respondents said they had personally reported waste, fraud or abuse at their agency, 44 percent of those who did said they were retaliated against in some form.

Those findings are similar to a 2011 MSPB report on whistleblower retaliation. The report indicated that while employees' perceptions of agency wrongdoing had actually declined between 1992 — when MSPB first studied the issue — to 2011, the overall perception that employees would be retaliated against for speaking out had not.

About 36 percent of respondents said they were retaliated against or threatened with retaliation for reporting agency misconduct, according to the MSPB study.

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, TRUST REDEFINED:

Introduction: Can trust be rebuilt between feds and the government?

Whistleblower hotlines changing the way IGs respond to waste, fraud and abuse

Q&A with Thomas Drake - one of government's most famous whistleblowers

Agency budget squeeze eroding trust between employees, management

Are you violating the Hatch Act and you don't even know it?

Despite increased reporting of sexual assaults, DoD still struggles to tackle issue

Full special report coverage