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Project on Government Oversight

POGO Letter to IG Council Chair Fong on Integrity and Efficiency, Clarifying POGO's Recommendation on IG Hotline

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November 13, 2009

The Honorable Phyllis K. Fong
Chair, Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency
USDA, Office of Inspector General
Room 117-W Jamie Whitten Building
1400 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20250

VIA FACSIMILE: (202) 690-1278

Dear Phyllis K. Fong:

In light of your ongoing review of hotline operations and whistleblower protections, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is writing to clarify one of our recommendations from Inspectors General: Accountability is a Balancing Act, our second report on the Inspectors General (IG) system.

While we stand firm in our belief that the IG community should create a welcoming environment for whistleblowers, we also recognize that the policies that best achieve those ends are not black and white. For that reason, we recommended in our report that the IG community engage in a review of whistleblower protections and hotline operations to help establish best practices. We are pleased that the Investigations Committee of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency is exploring this issue.

We would like to clarify our policy recommendation that the intake function of an IG's hotline should not be staffed by contractors. Following the release of our report, we received considerable feedback, both positive and negative, regarding that recommendation. And in response to that feedback, we decided to revisit the issue.

We feel strongly that the process of prioritizing complaints is an inherently governmental function—one that should never be contracted out, and still contend that the intake function of an IG's hotline is better kept in-house. As a natural response to the very real threat of retribution, whistleblowers can often be quite reluctant to open up, and that reaction can be exacerbated when they are required to interact with contractors—especially those who are unfamiliar with the agency's mission and programs.

However, upon further evaluation, we have come to understand that certain IGs receive an overwhelming number of tips—many of which are completely unrelated to their mission—and that requiring federal employees to process such intake can distract from their ability to actually investigate those tips that have merit. We would like to clarify, therefore, that the allocation of scarce resources within an IG office may lead to legitimate decisions to contract out the intake function—but not the prioritization of hotline complaints.

As such, we recognize that many IG offices contending with limited resources and heavy caseloads could benefit from outsourcing the most basic administrative functions of their whistleblower hotline, such as answering the phone and transcribing tips. However, we strongly feel that the process of prioritizing complaints should never be contracted out. In other words, while overburdened IGs should have the flexibility to outsource the basic administrative tasks of receiving whistleblower complaints if necessary, the decisions to prioritize those complaints should be the exclusive domain of federal employees. Furthermore, if an agency decides to hire a contractor to handle its whistleblower intake, the contractor needs to be sufficiently conversant in the agency's structure and mission to understand what the whistleblower is alleging. For instance, if a whistleblower mentions the acronym of the agency's program, the contractor needs to know what they're referring to.

Thank you again for initiating this very important review. Please contact me or Jake Wiens at (202) 347-1122 if you have any questions or require further clarification.

Sincerely,

Danielle Brian
Executive Director

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