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The Bridge: Blow the Whistle

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When it comes to whistleblowing, the truth doesn’t always set you free.

In fact, the price for telling the truth can be steep. Federal workers who come forward to report corruption more often than not face unjust retaliation from their superiors, politicians, and even the White House. They can be fired, publicly threatened, unfairly disciplined, or investigated for years on end — and while there are legal protections against retaliation, they are far too weak to guarantee it won’t happen. With the threat of retaliation so extreme, people are systematically deterred from stepping forward. But truth-tellers are vital to a healthy democracy. They keep the whole operation honest by bringing bad things happening in the shadows to light. When people stay silent about shady government business, we’re the ones who suffer. But there’s hope in the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act — the WPIA — a hard-fought bill that could make it safer (and hopefully, more routine) to tell the truth.

In this edition:

  • The price people pay for speaking up
  • How exactly the WPIA will cut those costs
  • Eyes on the prize
  • Plus, a timely invitation to a truth-teller celebration'

If you’re signed up to receive POGO’s email updates, you know that last week, the House passed the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act (WPIA), a bipartisan bill that has the power to eliminate the obstacles truth-tellers face when they speak out. The bill is now moving to the Senate. POGO’s Director of Public Policy, Liz Hempowicz, said that though she’d never say anything was perfect, “the bill is as close to perfect as it gets.” I asked her why — and here's what I learned.

But first, some context.

The WPIA has been in the works for close to two years. But larger efforts to secure better protections for whistleblowers have been happening for decades.

In fact, POGO’s specific history of working with whistleblowers goes all the way back to our founding. A quick history lesson: POGO was founded for whistleblowers in the Pentagon who found that things weren’t changing when they reported the corruption they’d uncovered internally. Frustrated with dead ends and retaliation, they realized the only way things would change was if they took their disclosures to Congress and the public directly. Thus, POGO was born: a safe and anonymous channel for whistleblowers to bring their truths to light. We have an established whistleblower hotline, if you ever need it, and a published survival guide with specific how-to’s on exposing abuse without exposing your identity.

That is all to say that for more than 40 years, POGO’s seen firsthand just how arduous it can be to walk a whistleblower’s path. The truth-telling whistleblowers engage in is critical to our democracy — without them, so much would remain in the shadows. But with a slow and opaque system of protections in place, they’re left extremely vulnerable to retaliation when they make the decision to come forward. Stronger whistleblower protections are desperately needed so those who see wrongdoing can come forward without feeling like they’re risking it all.

In 2020, Liz testified to Congress with a laundry list of demands for how to better protect whistleblowers. In 2021, the WPIA was introduced, and it included nearly all the reforms we’d pushed for.

Liz told me that what she loves most about the bipartisan WPIA is that it addresses so many of the biggest problems with our federal whistleblower protection system at once.

She is cautiously optimistic that the bill can still pass the Senate, even though Congress has few legislative days left this year due to the election cycle. Whistleblowing is less politicized in the Senate than in the House, so there’s a lot to be hopeful about. “It’s absolutely possible,” Liz said. There’s not a lot of time left in this session, but POGO’s policy team and a strong coalition of whistleblower advocates have laid the groundwork with our Senate champions to prepare for this moment.

The price isn’t right

“Whistleblowers are disempowered and victimized by the system they’re trying to do good in,” Liz told me. Coming forward to expose shady behavior is an uncomfortable, difficult, isolating, and confusing thing to do. It’s a dangerous position to occupy, especially if you work for the federal government. And with nothing but a deeply flawed system in place to protect them, whistleblowers face all sorts of unjust and absurd retaliation for telling the truth.

It is not an overstatement to say that in the system that exists now, blowing the whistle can jeopardize your whole career. “It’s such a difficult path to take, but people still come forward,” Liz said. “So the little bit we can do to help them, we should do.”

But the WPIA goes much further than a little bit. In fact, Liz said the bill addresses almost everything we’ve asked for over the last 10 (!) years. I want to highlight some of the biggest reforms:

The WPIA would give almost all federal employees these three critical protections.

One, access to jury trials. Currently, federal whistleblowers cannot have their retaliation complaints heard by a jury of their peers. These whistleblowers are the only major sector of the labor force that doesn’t have that right. They’re forced to rely on the very systems they’re trying to change as their only protection — and you can imagine how well that goes. “Our theory is that whistleblowers are much more likely to prevail with a jury of their peers instead of an insular government system that often sees them as problem makers rather than problem solvers,” Liz said.

Two, expanding the definitions of what counts as retaliation. Essentially, this means whistleblowers would be protected from being unfairly investigated post-disclosure without proper proof that there’s an actual reason for such an action — a commonsense protection that whistleblowers currently don’t have. It’s not considered “retaliatory” for an office to waste agency resources and time digging up dirt on a whistleblower in an effort to find something to hold against them, but it will be after the bill goes through.

Three, an actionable right to anonymity. Liz stressed to me again and again that the best way a whistleblower can protect themselves from retaliation is to blow the whistle anonymously. The logic of anonymity is simple: If they don’t know who you are, they can’t retaliate against you. The bill would guarantee the explicit right to anonymity to whistleblowers, and that has the power to change everything.

By angling to eliminate retaliation, the WPIA is ensuring truth-tellers are protected when they come forward so they never have to choose between their consciences and their careers again. And hopefully, in the process, making transparency more commonplace in the federal government.

Eyes on the prize

Protecting whistleblowers is in our best interests, and in Congress’s best interests too. When truth tellers come forward, the whole system improves. Whistleblower disclosures have catalyzed historic investigations and reforms and have even returned money to taxpayers. The disclosures are truly invaluable – that's where the focus should be, not on the whistleblowers themselves.

The fact of the matter is that the whistleblowers' identity or motivations shouldn’t matter. Liz said to me that she doesn’t care if a whistleblower is blowing the whistle because they’re a disgruntled employee. “Is what they’re blowing the whistle on true? If it is, then who cares who they are?”

By making it easier for whistleblowers to speak safely and anonymously, the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act will help us focus on what really matters — the corruption that’s being exposed.

To sum it all up, Liz says it best:

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Retweet.


Thanks for reading the first edition of the new Bridge! I really hope you liked it. If there’s anything you want to see dissected in the editions to come, reply to this email and let me know. I look forward to learning alongside you. See you next week.

An opportune P.S.

The vote on WPIA is good context to tell you about something exciting that’s happening next Wednesday. The 19th Annual Ridenhour Prizes will be honoring truth tellers who’ve persevered in bringing difficult truths to light. This year, Ridenhour is honoring Anita Hill, a lawyer and educator whose historic testimony catalyzed a national conversation on sexual harassment and a movement coined “The Year of the Woman”; Heather McGhee, for her book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together; filmmakers Stanley Nelson Jr. and Traci A. Curry for their documentary, Attica; and the former Twitter employee who testified before the January 6 committee. The event is online and (for the first time since 2019) in-person at the National Press Club in DC. If you make it in-person, there’s a free reception and lunch! If you’re only able to attend virtually — perhaps during your remote-working lunch break, as I’ll be doing — the ceremony is still, of course, free and absolutely worth watching. Learn more about the event and RSVP if you’re interested in showing up for truth tellers. Many of my fellow POGO colleagues will be there, and we look forward to keeping company with you. - SK