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Holding the Government Accountable

Watchdogs and Whistleblowers: A Progress Report

In 2012, Congress gave federal watchdogs an important job: ensuring that agency employees and supervisors understand the rights and protections afforded to whistleblowers. Under the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), Inspectors General (IGs) at many federal agencies were required to name a Whistleblower Protection Ombudsman to manage this effort.

Most of those IGs have utilized their websites to post clear and comprehensive information about the whistleblower ombudsmen, according to a review by the Project On Government Oversight. However, several watchdogs—most notably the IGs at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—have done little to publicize their ombudsmen online, and may be missing an important opportunity to inform agency employees of their whistleblower rights.

Whistleblowers are necessary for successful IG efforts to expose wrongdoing. But the relationship between IGs and whistleblowers has not always been a happy one. POGO reported in 2009 that “IGs, the very offices charged by Congress with receiving complaints about agency problems, all too often treat those complainants or whistleblowers as mere afterthoughts.” One of the problems we observed was that “[q]uite a number of IG sites do not inform potential whistleblowers that retaliation against them is illegal and they are protected by law from reprisal.” In a 2010 survey of federal employees by the Merit Systems Protection Board, only 55 percent of respondents agreed that their agency “had educated them about what their rights would be if they disclosed wrongdoing.”

POGO has long believed that ombudsmen can help the government do a better job of communicating with whistleblowers and other stakeholders—provided that the ombudsmen are highly qualified leaders with meaningful independence and authority. In 2009, based on our investigation, we called on all but the smallest IGs to create an ombudsman for whistleblower protection, and in 2012 we lauded Congress for including this requirement in the WPEA. In addition to educating agency employees and supervisors about whistleblower rights, a well-functioning ombudsman can help resolve disputes before retaliation occurs in the first place. At a broader level, she can help foster an organizational culture that treats whistleblowers as more than just an afterthought.

To get a glimpse at the status of the whistleblower ombudsman programs, POGO surveyed the websites of all 72 statutory IGs see what kind of information is being made publicly available to agency personnel and outside stakeholders. Our review found that many IGs have posted an online description of the ombudsman’s role and the updated rights granted to whistleblowers under the WPEA. Some IGs, such as those at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Labor, have provided easy access to ombudsman information with direct links on the IG’s homepage. The Department of Justice IG provides a helpful list of frequently asked questions with video tutorials. The IGs at the Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, and other agencies publicly identify their whistleblower ombudsman and offer a dedicated email address or phone number for employees to get in touch.

In addition to publicizing the ombudsmen, many IG websites provide valuable and timely information on whistleblower rights. IGs at some agencies, such as the Department of Education, are now required to investigate claims of retaliation brought by agency contractors, subcontractors, and grantees, and their whistleblower ombudsman pages reflect this new authority. The Department of State IG and others provide special instructions for employees with access to classified information, including guidance on the new process established by Presidential Policy Directive-19 (PPD-19) under which employees can ask the IG to investigate claims of retaliation related to their security clearance.

In an encouraging sign, some IGs—such as those at the U.S. International Trade Commission and the National Science Foundation—were not required to designate an ombudsman but did so anyway, and have taken the extra step to publicize this information on their websites. The IG of the Intelligence Community was not required to name an ombudsman, but its website provides updated information on whistleblower rights for intelligence employees made available in the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014.

At the same time, three federal watchdogs—the IGs at USAID, DHS, and the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB)—were required to designate an ombudsman but have publicized little to no information about the resource on their websites. Of course, IGs don’t need an ombudsman to communicate with whistleblowers. But if the office has appointed an ombudsman—DHS and USAID have, and it is unclear whether RRB has—providing online information about the resource makes it much easier for agency personnel and other interested parties to access the ombudsman or educate themselves about whistleblower protections. Making the information publicly available also allows outside stakeholders to evaluate whether the ombudsman process is working as intended.

With 240,000 employees and a budget of approximately $60 billon, DHS is one of the largest agencies in the federal government. The agency’s size and power—not to mention its history of retaliating against whistleblowers, such as Robert MacLean who tried to expose threats to public safety—make it all the more important to have a visible ombudsman in place. The IG’s website refers to a whistleblower ombudsman program but doesn’t clearly identify an ombudsman, explain his role, or tell employees how to get in touch. Furthermore, instead of providing detailed information on whistleblower rights, the IG simply links to other web resources, half of which don’t work at time of publication.

USAID is another agency of considerable size and influence, with expenditures of more than $15 billion since 2002 on Afghanistan reconstruction projects alone. But the USAID IG’s website provides no information about a whistleblower ombudsman. In response to questions from POGO, an IG official said the agency uses an internal website to educate employees about the ombudsman, and will be expanding this resource to a public-facing website in the near future. In the meantime, however, employees who want to contact the ombudsman or learn about their rights when they’re not in the office may have a difficult time doing so.

Although the Railroad Retirement Board may not have the same prominence or influence as DHS or USAID, it has the important task of administering insurance benefits for U.S. railroad workers. This is an area that is ripe for fraud and needs employees who aren’t afraid to blow the whistle when they see misconduct.

There may be other reasons to question whether employees at DHS, USAID, and RRB are being given the information they need. In February 2014, President Obama directed all federal agencies to seek certification from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) to ensure agency employees are informed of their whistleblower rights and remedies. As of this writing, however, these three agencies and their IGs are among the many offices that have not registered for or received OSC certification.

One DHS official, who asked to remain anonymous, told POGO that the agency has taken significant steps to meet OSC’s five requirements for certification. For instance, the agency is developing an internal website as a central repository of information to educate new and current employees about whistleblower protections, the official said. One of the biggest hurdles the agency faces is figuring out how to provide ongoing training to DHS agents scattered across the country, including many who do not work behind a desk. The official said DHS is working with OSC to meet this challenge and finish complying with the White House’s directive. POGO urges all the whistleblower ombudsmen to work with their agencies and IGs to obtain OSC certification, if they haven’t done so already.

The DHS and RRB IGs did not respond to POGO’s request for comment.

UPDATE: As of Wednesday, the Inspector General (IG) at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has posted a page with information about their whistleblower ombudsman program. (The IG's office confirmed to POGO that the public-facing page went live this week.) The page helpfully identifies the ombudsman, provides dedicated contact information, and offers to arrange presentations for agency personnel. POGO commends the USAID IG for making this information publicly available, and urges other IG offices to post their own pages if they haven't done so already.

Images from the Department of Transportation and the Department of Homeland Security.