Do you know your whistleblower rights?

Tuesday - 9/2/2014, 3:58am EDT

Listen to Michael Smallberg's interview on the Federal Drive.

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When federal employees see wrongdoing at their agencies, they face two major choices: Ignore it, or blow the whistle.

The avenues to report wrongdoing are numerous, from inspector general offices to agency supervisors to members of Congress. Without proper information, the process can be daunting.

But a Whistleblower Protection Ombudsman could offer some clarity — not to mention protection from retaliation.

Under the Whistleblower Protection Enforcement Act (WPEA) passed by Congress in 2012, large IG offices with presidentially-appointed IGs are required to name an ombudsman

"This was a landmark bill that really modernized and, in many ways, restored protection for federal employees who blow the whistle," said Michael Smallberg, investigator for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

'Exemplary' IG offices

In many cases, the ombudsman is already a senior official in an inspector general office, who then takes on the additional role. The job is to provide independent and objective advice to employees. The ombudsman cannot legally represent an employee who is reporting wrongdoing at an agency.

"We hope the ombudsman can really play a leading role in helping the IG offices and the agencies do all they can to make sure that they're putting the information out there that they need, to inform employees of their whistleblower rights," Smallberg said.

POGO recently reviewed IGs' websites, to assess how well the offices have publicized information about the ombudsman.

"It's really important that the website have accurate and honest information about the rights that are available," Smallberg said.

He says some agency IGs are doing an "exemplary" job in posting the necessary information on their websites.

The Justice Department lists a number of frequently asked questions, directions on how to file a whistleblower complaint and even a video on reporting wrongdoing within an agency.

At the departments of Defense and Transportation, IG websites identify and provide contact information for the ombudsman.

Some IG offices — such as the National Science Foundation and the International Trade Commission — named an ombudsman, even though it's not a requirement.

Smallberg says these agencies are taking a step in the right direction in going "beyond just the basic requirements of the law to really think more broadly and holistically about the relationship between IGs and whistleblowers."

But not all agencies won high marks with POGO on making whistleblower rights well known.

OSC certification

The Homeland Security Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development provide very little information online about their whistleblower ombudsmen, Smallberg says.

"That's not to say they haven't taken any steps to educate folks about whistleblower rights," he said. "But we do think it's important to also post that information online."

In addition to naming an ombudsman, agencies need to receive certification from the Office of Special Counsel, which ensures employees have the necessary information about their whistleblower rights.

"We were concerned to see that some of those same IG offices that are not posting information about their ombudsman have also not signed up or been certified by OSC," Smallberg said.

He says POGO has already reached out to a number of IG offices and will continue to do so.

"In some cases, we're going to need to see much deeper cultural transformations to restore the credibility of these offices in the eyes of whistleblowers," Smallberg said. "And the big test will come as people actually start to reach out to these offices."

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