Can trust be rebuilt between feds and the government?

Tuesday - 5/20/2014, 3:43am EDT

Look on any piece of United States currency and you'll find the words, "In God We Trust." But what about your boss? Those words are scant solace to federal employees who feel their managers don't have their backs. Nor to a manager who wonders whether a subordinate is working, organizing a political party or downloading secret documents.

Events over the last several years have eroded the essential manager-employee trust so necessary to the effective functioning of federal agencies and well-being of those who work for them. Like waves of seawater washing at a sand castle, furloughs, pay freezes, seeming persecution of whistleblowers, and military sexual assaults have brought trust to low levels.

To quantify trust, Federal News Radio surveyed over 1,900 federal employees, members of the private sector and retirees. We found 70 percent of the federal employees responding rate the level of trust they have in the government itself at or below 5 on a scale of 1-to-10. Less than 3 percent have near complete trust. Equally telling, 90 percent of respondents answered "yes" to the question, "Does the government need to rebuild trust with its employees?"

Sources of trust erosion range from clumsy treatment by Congress to "leadership willing to throw workers under the bus," in the words of one survey respondent. It's evidence of concern over trust that 548 respondents to the question took the time to type in a reason why trust needs bolstering.

This week, Federal News Radio presents comprehensive coverage on the issue of trust in government in our special report, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees. We'll chronicle how trust has broken down but also, and more importantly, efforts to restore it.

Seven lean years

The trust deficit has been years in the making. For example:

The Office of Special Counsel is the one place federal employees ought to feel they can trust when confronted with retaliation for being a whistleblower. Don't take my word for it. Read this from OSC's own website:

"Whenever misdeeds take place in a federal agency, there are employees who know that it has occurred and who are outraged by it. What is needed is a means to assure them that they will not suffer if they help uncover and correct administrative abuses. These conscientious civil servants deserve statutory protection."

That's from a 1978 report leading to the enabling legislation for the office.

So what happens when the chief of the Office of Special Counsel is himself accused of hounding whistleblowers and discriminating against gay employees? When he hires Geeks On Call to thoroughly erase information on his government-issued computer? That's exactly what happened in 2007 with then-OSC head Scott Bloch. He eventually pleaded guilty to obstructing Congress and destroying government property.

In this example, as in others, government itself is the problem. Bloch is long gone, but in the last couple of years more blows to trust have landed.

Military sexual assaults and harassment cases have shaken the Defense Department from the service academies up to the Secretary of Defense.

Whether actual occurrences of these incidents are on the rise or merely the reporting of them has increased, even the military is uncertain. A Pentagon report earlier this month showed a 50 percent increase in reports of sexual assaults compared to a year earlier.

The whole issue burst onto the scene publicly thanks to a couple of incidents. A commanding general set aside the 2013 assault conviction of an Air Force pilot. Though Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin said he had nagging doubts about the victim's credibility, he resigned in January amid withering pressure from members of Congress and victims' advocacy groups. The Franklin incident followed a scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in 2011, which led to the eventual conviction of a training staff sergeant and removal of a lieutenant colonel and a colonel. Forty-three female trainees had been sexually assaulted.

Both the Navy and Army also had their share of widely publicized sexual scandals in the last couple of years.

Who can you trust?

For as long as there's been a civil service, civil servants have disagreed with the policy they're charged with carrying out. But when a federal employee witnesses malfeasance or just plain incompetence, things can get complicated. Whistleblowers — that is, people who go to Congress or other authorities when regular administrative procedures don't stop the problem — have long been problematic. There's a fine line between simple malcontents and people who point out real wrongdoing. A line that's not always simple to discern.

Regardless, some whistleblowers haven't exactly felt the love. As late as last month, the Government Accountability Project, an advocate for whistleblowers, was blogging on behalf of Agriculture whistleblowers claiming chemical levels used in chicken processing harm poultry workers. They say the department hasn't dealt with them, nor with inspectors who claim line speed-ups will let more sick birds into processing for food.

The Edward Snowden affair presents a spectacular, but more complicated, case of whistleblowing, at least in Snowden and his supporters' minds. Snowden has also been accused of theft and national betrayal. He's singlehandedly caused top-to-bottom mistrust. Snowden, a contractor employee with Booz Allen Hamilton and a skilled hacker, didn't like surveillance programs he witnessed at the National Security Agency. So he famously downloaded thousands of secret documents about them and leaked them to willing friends in the media. The ensuing uproar caused a national debate that continues to this day.

For federal executives, the Snowden affair caused mistrust in the security clearance process as it heightened the fear of the insider threat. No less corrosive was the murderous Navy Yard rampage of security-cleared, but deranged, Aaron Alexis, who shot 12 innocents to death before police took him out.

Sometimes, engendering trust requires a more measured approach to discipline than the law and federal practice allow. That's certainly been true of the Hatch Act, the 1939 law prohibiting political activity by federal employees while on duty or using government resources like conference rooms or computers. It also banned them from running for local office if that office benefitted from a federal program.

Yet the punishment — dismissal — was the single medicine used to cure nearly every violation, whether spamming the whole office for donations to Schmendrick for President or leaving half a bumper sticker unscraped in the agency garage. As for local office, the Hatch Act came to be interpreted such that you couldn't run for registrar of dog licenses.

Bob Tobias is the director of Public Sector Executive Education at American University. He refers to the annual analysis of federal employee attitudes done by the Partnership for Public Service. It shows over and over that good attitudes and bad start at the stop, with leadership. He notes a recurring credibility gap between GS-15s and Senior Executive Service members, and those they lead.

Tobias says, "Trust is a symptom of whether or not employee engagement exists. It's not possible, I don't believe, to have employee engagement without trust." He adds, "Of course, we know that employee engagement is critical to increased agency efficiency, effectiveness and productivity."

So can trust, and therefore all of those other metrics of agency mission delivery, move in the right direction?

As Federal News Radio's online and on-air special report will detail this week, within the incidents that destroy trust lie the seeds of repair.

Congress has in fact altered some of the trust-busting laws. Among the major legislative moves:

  • The Hatch Act Modernization Act provides for proportional punishment, while letting people run for essentially non-political posts such as selectman in their local jurisdiction.
  • The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which the president signed into law in 2012, restored protections that had diminished since the original whistleblower protection law in 1989. That was progress but advocates still say too many federal employees and contractors are left unprotected because of their status as national security personnel.
  • A new legal approach to sexual assaults arrived with enactment of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. They weren't all the military's fiercest critics wanted, but the changes will bring more experienced minds in the form of judges advocate general to consider the evidence in such cases. The law also establishes special victims counselors. It eliminates consideration of the accused service member's character when the convening authority decides how to dispose of a case. It also establishes mandatory sentences, dishonorable discharge and several other provisions.
  • Signs of change are already appearing. Carolyn Lerner, the head of the Office of Special Counsel, says whistleblower complaints are up 50 percent, a sign the law encourages people to come forward.

Be sure to tune in on the radio (1500AM in the Washington, D.C. region and streamed online) for interviews with people who can make a difference including:

  • Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, and Shirine Moazed, who heads OSC's Washington field office
  • Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who's concerned about the morale of the federal workforce
  • Susan Tsui Grundmann, chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board
  • Col. Max Maxwell, an experienced Army judge advocate general (JAG) and head of the Army JAG's Strategic Initiatives Office
  • Paula Coughlin, board member of Protect Our Defenders, who has worked to hold the military accountable since the Tailhook scandal

... and many others.

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, TRUST REDEFINED:

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

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

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