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Investing in Watchdogs: More Bang for Your Buck

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A small, independent federal investigative agency that yields enormous returns to taxpayers needs more resources. When Congress passed the landmark Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) in November, expanding protections for federal employees who blow the whistle on government waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality, Congress also expanded the Office of Special Counsel’s (OSC) role and responsibilities. As a government watchdog tasked with protecting whistleblowers, the OSC is already experiencing a dramatically increasing caseload.

But the WPEA was passed long after the original budget requests were made, and the current budgeted amount for the OSC for Fiscal Year 2013 does not reflect OSC’s expanded role under these new whistleblower reforms.

Yesterday, the Project On Government Oversight and our partners sent a letter urging House and Senate appropriators to provide the OSC with the additional funding they need to implement the new law. The WPEA is likely to result in a greater number of whistleblowers coming forward—which means a real need for increased OSC personnel and resources. The letter outlines five key ways that the new law will impact OSC’s workload:

  • WPEA made changes to legal standards in the whistleblower law, which will increase the number of cases in which OSC conducts full investigations.
  • WPEA clarified and added to the personnel practices that are prohibited in response to disclosures of wrongdoing, and therefore can be investigated by the OSC.
  • WPEA expanded OSC’s jurisdiction by extending protections to over 50,000 passenger and baggage screeners working for the Transportation Security Administration.
  • WPEA reversed court decisions that had undermined the law. To defend and preserve the intent of Congress, the OSC may have to pursue more litigation, including more formal disciplinary action cases aimed at deterring prohibited personnel practices.
Office of Special Counsel

Even prior to passage of the new law, OSC’s caseload was already growing (reaching an all-time high of 4,800 cases in FY 2012). The Congressional Budget Office estimated that fully implementing the WPEA would require the OSC and the Merit Systems Protection Board to spend about $2 million a year to hire additional staff to take on additional cases. This landmark reform will not amount to much if Congress fails to fund it.

In today’s fiscal environment, it is important to recognize that investing in government watchdogs is markedly different from other forms of government spending increases. OSC yields huge cost savings for taxpayers by stopping wasteful practices whistleblowers uncover, shifting agency policies based on the findings of their investigations, and providing vital assistance for inspectors general. So in addition to the immediate benefits from initial investigations, the OSC also spurs systemic policy changes that yield invaluable, long-term savings. This is the investment that keeps on giving.

The OSC also deserves a huge pat on the back for a 52 percent increase in productivity since FY 2008. And last year the OSC set an agency record for favorable actions on behalf of federal employees–securing 159 favorable actions in prohibited personnel practices cases, an 89% increase from FY 2011. With this remarkable record and the extraordinary leadership of Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, we can expect that as disclosures continue to skyrocket and the caseload grows, OSC will handle their investigations and litigation with utmost efficiency and integrity.

Investing in watchdogs like the OSC helps the government better protect whistleblowers, defend public health and safety, root out waste, and save taxpayer dollars. Now is not the time to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

By: Suzanne Dershowitz
Public Policy Fellow, POGO

suzanne dershowitz At the time of publication Suzie Dershowitz was a public policy fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Whistleblower Protections

Related Content: Advocacy, Budget, Office of Special Counsel

Authors: Suzanne Dershowitz

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