Holding the Government Accountable

How Many Federal Workers Know Their Rights?

Federal workers should know their rights and the protections available when they blow the whistle. But far too often, agencies are failing to inform their employees that if they witness government waste, fraud, abuse, or illegality, there are safe channels for reporting and that it is against the law for their supervisor to retaliate against them. And when would-be whistleblowers don’t know their rights, taxpayers lose out.

POGO applauds the 10 federal agencies that have sought and received the Office of Special Council’s Whistleblower Certification (5 U.S.C. §2302(c) certification). This certification program allows agencies to demonstrate that they have fulfilled the obligation to inform their employees about rights and remedies available to them under the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) and civil service laws. This is a critical first step to a culture of accountability—one in which employees are encouraged to come forward when they witness wrongdoing and whistleblowers are treated with respect and gratitude. While certification is voluntary, agencies are required by law to inform their employees about rights and procedures for blowing the whistle.

It is rather disappointing that the vast majority of federal agencies—80-odd agencies—have failed to receive certification. It’s hard, then, to know whether they’re even complying with the law.

There was a time when it didn’t matter so much, since the rights under the WPA had become a paper tiger. But now that the law has been restored and expanded with the passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), and the Office of Special Counsel has strong leadership dedicated to the mission of protecting whistleblowers, it’s time for agencies to get with the program—and get certified.

Hopefully, one of the reforms in the WPEA will help agencies do just that. Agency Inspectors General are required to designate new Whistleblower Protection Ombudsmen, tasked with educating agency personnel about whistleblower rights—the heart of the certification program. These Ombudsmen will likely be motivated to get their agency certified, since this will be an important way to demonstrate they are doing their jobs well.

In addition, according to the OSC website: “certification is reported to Congress annually, and it also is a ‘suggested performance indicator’ for ‘getting to green’ on the Strategic Management of Human Capital element of the President's Management Agenda.”

It’s easy for agencies to fulfill the OSC’s requirements for certification. OSC provides certification if the agency places informational posters at agency facilities, provides information about prohibited personnel practices and the WPA to new and current employees, provides training for supervisors, and links to OSC’s website on the agency’s website.

These are basic, minimum best practices that every agency can and should engage in. Of course, they can and should go further.

Examples of certified agencies with excellent Office of Inspector General (OIG) websites that contain a wealth of information explaining whistleblower rights and procedures include the Department of Commerce,Department of Defense, Department of Labor, and the National Science Foundation. In clear, straightforward language, these websites describe what kinds of issues employees should report and how the whistleblower protection programs work. They assure employees that all disclosures will be confidential and provide information on how to report allegations via hotline’s online complaint form, phone, fax, mail, email, or in person. Some of these websites also provide helpful glossaries of terms, FAQs, printable hotline posters, and links to other resources.

Some of these websites also specifically state that covered contractor/grantee employees may also use the hotline to make complaints. Department of Labor,Department of Defense, and National Science Foundation OIGs provide online contractor reporting forms. These agencies are ahead of the curve, since another new lawPOGO strongly supported now requires IGs to investigate contractor and grantee claims of retaliation for whistleblowing and provides excellent remedies, based on the Recovery Act whistleblower protections.

In sum, these 10 agencies are doing a good job spreading the word about whistleblower protections, but this should be the rule not the exception. POGO will be watchdogging and taking note of progress, but also we are available to help agencies and IGs who want to have a culture of accountability. We hope that this year all agencies will get certified and will be strong protectors of whistleblowers.