The silver lining in the GSA scandal

Friday - 4/20/2012, 5:47am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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The silver lining in all of this upheaval is agencies now will give more attention to better management and place more value on whistleblowers.

"The value of this isn't just about the $820,000. It's really also about the scrutiny it brings to government waste by this one example," said Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel. "Congress is holding hearings. Agencies now are going to be treading more carefully about the way they are spending money."

Carolyn Lerner, Office of Special Counsel (OSC.gov)

Lerner said while the government may not ever see much or any of the $823,000 GSA's Public Buildings Service spent on a lavish conference outside of Las Vegas, the government will save money is many other ways because of the publicity of the case.

And the publicity has been impressive despite this scandal's insignificant waste and abuse as compared to other misdeeds over the last decade. (Click here to see a timeline of previous scandals).

Scott Amey, the general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, said the reason the GSA scandal captures the interest of the general public is because people can more easily relate to its waste and abuse.

"Everybody would like some all-expenses-paid Vegas destination trip with nightly parties, lifestyles of the rich and famous," he said. "But when it's on the taxpayer's dime that's where there is more outrage and concern."

He said the tens of millions or even billions of dollars in waste in Iraq and Afghanistan or through improper payments doesn't resonate very well with the public or with federal workers.

Scandal opens the door for change

Lerner, Amey and others say these reasons also are why the government has a better than usual chance to change for the better.

Some of that change will come from Capitol Hill. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked every large agency to provide details of their conference spending.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced legislation Wednesday to set new requirements for conference spending above $200,000 and annual reports on the money spent on meetings.

Scott Amey, general counsel, Project on Government Oversight (POGO)

Lawmakers are expected to introduce more bills and conduct more investigations into spending issues across the government.

Because of all this attention, the benefits will be huge in the long term, both in terms of money and culture change.

"GSA has cancelled all travel for the rest of the year and they will only approve it at the highest levels," said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "So right there hundreds of thousands of dollars will be saved because of the lack of any travel, and it will reverberate throughout the whole federal government."

Schatz added travel costs is one of the easiest spending areas to control.

The re-invigorated control of spending also means the potential for greater savings increases. Schatz said the Government Accountability Office has found for every dollar an auditor spends on an investigation, the government realizes as much as $10 in savings.

Even though Congress has reduced funding for IGs and GAO in recent years, Schatz said the GSA IG report makes a compelling argument for increasing auditing budgets.

Agencies will pay more attention to how they spend money

POGO's Amey said the revelations also will do much to fix GSA's culture, and those changes will extend to other agencies.

"How do we fix the corporate culture, not only within GSA, but this sends a message out to all federal agencies, to all agencies that are sending government employees to conferences, to all government agencies who are spending taxpayer dollars on contracts, grants or for their own internal budget purposes [and saying] 'Hey, are we spending that money wisely, and if not watch out,' or you will be the next GSA," he said.

Lerner added the culture change goes beyond how agencies spend money.

"This very unfortunate incident is an opportunity for agencies to renew their efforts to create a culture of ethics and integrity," Lerner said. "It also underscores the importance of fostering a workplace where employees can report misconduct without the fear of reprisal. That's really the good that can come out of something like this."

Thomas Shatz, president, Citzens Against Government Waste (CAGW)

Along those same lines, she said agencies will once again value the role of whistleblowers.

When the OSC reported about the Air Force's mortuary problems, the number of people coming to the office with complaints increased significantly.

Lerner said incidents like this make employees feel empowered to point out potential wrongdoings.

"We know that whistleblowers save more money than auditors and outside law enforcement and inspectors general combined," she said. "If the message is, 'We value you, we will protect you and if there is a problem we will take appropriate action' that will help change the culture."

Management must strengthen whistleblower protections

But culture change also needs to start at the top. Lerner said managers and agency leaders need to create a culture of openness and fearlessness for whistleblowers.

"You have to have a good strong inspector general office. You have to have training. It has to be integrated into your performance appraisals for mangers how they deal with employee complaints," Lerner said. "It's a culture that from the top down a message has to be sent, preferably from the head of the agency, that employees should come forward with allegations of waste, fraud or abuse or health and safety violations."

She said passing an updated version of the Whistleblower Protection Act into law also would make a big difference.

"The law doesn't protect some of the very people who are in the best position to report fraud, waste and abuse and health and safety violations," Lerner said. "People like auditors and safety inspectors aren't covered."

She added the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act would send a signal to federal employees that they needed to come forward and highlight possible misdeeds.

Lerner said employees who find waste, fraud or abuse can go to their IG or to the OSC. She said OSC has an entire unit that only deals with waste, fraud or abuse and health and safety violations.

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