Whistleblower cases have gone 'through the roof,' even as OSC faces uncertain budget

Monday - 12/2/2013, 5:23pm EST

Carolyn Lerner, special counsel, on "The Federal Drive" with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp

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The Office of Special Counsel, the agency tasked with investigating federal-agency whistleblower claims and protecting whistleblowers, themselves, from retaliation has seen demand for its work skyrocket in the wake of recent legislative changes.

Now, Carolyn Lerner, the head of the OSC, said she hopes the small agency's budget will keep pace.

In the first few months of 2013, following the passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act last fall, OSC received its highest number of quarterly claims from employees alleging retaliation for reporting wrongdoing.

"So, the caseload in that area, has really gone through the roof," Lerner said in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

The law increased the agency's jurisdiction for reviewing and investigating claims and made it easier to discipline agency officials who retaliate against employees who report wrongdoing.

But even before the whistleblower laws were expanded, the agency's workload was rising, increasing by 50 percent over the past five years, Lerner said.

The entire prohibited personnel practices division, which includes the unit for responding to claims of whistleblower retaliation, has seen its caseload increase by about 30 percent over the last five years.

The agency has also seen sizable caseload increases in its work investigating violations of the Hatch Act — the law banning federal workers from engaging in many political activities — and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

OSC 'operates on a shoestring'

But even as workloads have increased, the budget and staff of the small agency — just over 100 employees — have basically flat-lined.

"We're really, really hopeful that Congress will allocate more resources to our agency, and it doesn't take a whole lot for us to have more of an impact" Lerner said.

In its fiscal 2014 budget proposal that baldly declared the agency "operates on a shoestring," OSC requested about $20.6 million. That's an increase of about $1.7 million, which will allow for an additional 11 full-time employees, according to the request.

OSC said its recent performance speaks for itself.

"In just this past year, favorable outcomes rose 75 percent in OSC's whistleblower retaliation cases and 89 percent in its prohibited personnel practice cases," the budget request stated. "However, as demand for our services rapidly increases, absent adequate support, this positive trajectory will not be sustainable."

Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have approved OSC's request, although funding is mostly frozen at last year's levels until Jan. 15 because Congress has been unable to agree on a budget deal.

"We're really keeping our fingers crossed that in the next budget or the next continuing resolution, we will get a little bit more money that will help us tremendously," Lerner said.

Agency conducting outreach effort

In the meantime, OSC has sought to make processing cases more efficient.

The agency has devoted more resources to the unit that handles retaliation cases, since it has seen a high demand. But it is also cross-training employees across different focus areas.

"We're trying to make sure that instead of specializing in just one (area), people can move around within the agency as needed to handle this increasing caseload," Lerner said.

The agency has also helped fill staffing gaps with law school interns and Presidential Management Fellows.

OSC is also seeking to work through cases using the alternative dispute resolution process, or mediation.

"And that gets quicker and, often, much better results for the complainant and the agencies, alike, and that helps lighten the investigative work," Lerner said.

The agency is also ramping up its outreach and public-education efforts, including publishing a pamphlet, "Know your Rights When Reporting Wrongs," which provides answers to frequently asked questions about reporting wrongdoing and explains OSC's process.

Lerner said the goal is to get the pamphlet into the hands of every single federal employee.

"That's really the goal — to decrease our workload by making sure that people understand what the law is, so there are fewer violations," she said.

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