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

Tuesday - 5/20/2014, 4:08am EDT

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As recently as a year ago, if a lower-priority report of waste, fraud or abuse arrived via the Defense Department's inspector general hotline, it could potentially sit in a processing queue for several months before receiving attention from investigators. But as of this March, the backlog is entirely gone, and even "priority three" cases are handled well within 30 days.

The department of Health and Human Services, which runs another of the government's busiest IG hotlines, has a similar story. A few years ago, the average processing time for incoming complaints was approximately six months. Today it's inside 30 days.

Federal officials who spoke to Federal News Radio as part of our special report, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees , said agencies, large and small, across government are improving their hotline programs, partially by embracing new technologies and partially through simple business process improvements — moving cases through the system more quickly and, in turn, more effectively meeting their core mission of allowing federal employees and members of the public to blow the whistle on fraud and threats to life and safety.

"All of us signed up for this profession to help people. Backlogged complaints don't give people the help they need in a timely fashion," said Patrick Gookin, the director of DoD's hotline program. "Meeting metrics and eliminating our backlog gives us a huge sense of pride and worth that what we're doing matters and we're getting help to people as soon as we can."

Patrick Gookin, director of DoD's hotline program

One major reason the changes are spreading is that agency hotline officials now have a formalized venue to share what's working and what's not amongst one another. A year ago, Gookin's office helped set up three working groups which meet quarterly: one is focused on programs in the DoD IG community, another is federal governmentwide, and a third is open to all hotline officials, including those from state, local and tribal governments, and even nonprofit groups.

"It allows us to sit down and discuss issues and concerns as a community," said Scott Vantrease, the director for hotline operations within the HHS IG's office. "You have the traditional turnover in the federal government and, as new people come into the program, new ideas can come to the forefront. It allows us a forum to openly and candidly discuss how we handle the public's complaints and if there's improvements we can make."

One improvement that's already seen widespread adoption is the use of structured online forms to handle the process of taking in new complaints. While the addition of email as a complaint mechanism many years ago was a step forward for hotlines, email also has its drawbacks, Gookin said. Since a simple email inbox can't provide complainants with guidance on what types of information an IG needs for an investigation, the messages can consume staff time by requiring them to wade deeply into paragraphs of text that aren't necessarily relevant and also omit details that are critical to a successful investigation.

"The first thing on our form is designed to manage the expectations of the complainant and let them know right up front the things we can and cannot do for them," Gookin said. "It's also a structured format, so we're asking the who, what, when, where, how and why. Prior to the forms, when people just sent an open letter to the hotline, they might leave out one of the elements of an offense and it led to a lot of back and forth emails. Now we're covering all the bases, and we no longer accept emails. This gives us all the information we need to know so we can evaluate a complaint. It cuts down the time tremendously."

After DoD implemented its new complaint software, it decided to share the source code with the rest of the IG community. Gookin said several hotline officials have already implemented it within their own agencies.

Another successful measure, Vantrease said, has been the use of automated phone trees that redirect incoming calls to the proper office when they aren't within the purview of the agency's IG staff.

Scott Vantrease, director for hotline operations, HHS IG's office

"Through a series of prompts, we can analyze whether the matter they're bringing is more of a question. For example, a beneficiary who's lost their Medicare card or wants to know if a service is covered has an option to select that takes them directly to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services phone contact center, because it's not a matter for the IG," Vantrease said. "Or if they're calling about fraud in the SNAP program, they get transferred directly to USDA so they can get service without having to redial, delaying their complaint and causing additional frustration."

Gookin said DoD's implementation of the phone tree idea is one major reason it was able to eliminate its backlog. Before the automated system, the DoD hotline was regularly swamped with calls about employee pay issues, something the IG is generally prohibited from dealing with. Now, the phone tree automatically transfers callers with pay questions to the proper office at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. Gookin said the day the system went live, the number of calls that rang through to employees in the DoD IG's call centers fell by 60 percent.

After attending one of the federal hotline working group summits for the first time earlier this month, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction decided to repurpose the phone tree idea, said George Melendez, a supervisory investigative analyst who runs SIGAR's hotline program.

"We decided we would use that process to allow the caller to select either English, Dari or Pashto, and the call will be routed appropriately," he said.

Melendez said SIGAR, as a relatively young agency, has been able to maintain enough staff and resources since its beginning to prevent the buildup of a backlog, but it's also made technology improvements as it's gone along.

In the early days, staff used simple Excel spreadsheets to record and track complaints, but two years ago the agency moved to a modern case management system.

"There's more visibility to the complaints we have now and it's easier to refer them to agents for further follow-up," he said. "It's made that a lot quicker and I think everyone's held a little more accountable because of that."

Melendez said SIGAR has also had recent success in using Facebook to generate new cases, since the social media service is widely used by locals in Afghanistan, who already make up about a third of SIGAR's complainants. The agency now posts to the site in Dari, Pashto and English, using it both as a promotional tool and to solicit information about waste, fraud and abuse.

"The instant they were launched, the response was pretty incredible," he said. "In the first week after we started the Dari posts, our contacts jumped up by 50 percent. We're looking at that as an approach we plan to continue to use in the future."

Federal hotline officials say the importance of improving their processes so that complaints move more quickly through the system extends well beyond providing better service to whistleblowers. Vantrease said within HHS, the adoption of new technologies and business practices has proven its value to the investigative process itself.

"One of the biggest benefits our investigators get is having information in their hands much more quickly than we were able to in the past," he said. "Using our internal case system allows our analysts to forward information that might need additional review to our agents in the field automatically through an electronic, internal system rather than using mail, and they get to see the information as soon as it's processed, cutting off of referral times if not more. In certain instances, it means getting vital information about destruction of evidence to investigators in a short time frame so they can react to the situation."

Gookin agrees the more streamlined officials can make the hotline reporting process, the better, particularly in high-priority cases that require an urgent response.

"The noticeable difference in referring things real-time is, one, it stops things that are in progress, and two, it helps the investigator get timely evidence. If it's backlogged for months before it finally gets to an investigator, it's stale, and you might have lost evidence."

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, TRUST REDEFINED:

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

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