How Congress can better protect whistleblowers from retaliation

Federal whistleblowers often go to members of Congress to report waste, fraud and abuse at their agencies. But that means congressional staff need to be on top of their game to make sure that they don’t expose those whistleblowers to negative repercussions, according to a May 7 Government Accountability Office report.

“Federal whistleblowers — employees who report violations of law, agency mismanagement or ethical violations — help to safeguard the federal government against waste, fraud and abuse,” the report said.

“Whistleblowers can report to various entities, including the Congress. While these reports are a key source of information for federal oversight, whistleblowers can risk reprisal. Therefore, it is important to appropriately handle whistleblowers' information and identity.”

The report outlines four points in the whistleblower reporting process where congressional staff should be considering ways to encourage communication with employees who call out waste, fraud and abuse while keeping those feds safe.

At the intake point, when feds first reach out to report a problem, congressional staff should have a written process for maintaining security, develop a secure tracking system to keep on top of cases, build a rapport with the whistleblower to establish expectations and processes, and ask questions to fully understand the disclosure, according to the report.

After intake, the office should have established priorities that help make decisions on what actions will be taken after a disclosure has been made and communicate those priorities to the whistleblower.

Then offices can refer the disclosure to an agency oversight office or congressional body, and the GAO report said that offices should have a tip sheet with common places to refer a disclosure and a system for documenting exactly where each disclosure was sent. Staff should also communicate referral options and ask permission from the whistleblower before sharing any personal information.

Finally, GAO recommended that offices have documented expectations for follow-up communication and relay those expectations to the whistleblower. The office should also have a plan for evaluating lessons learned from the whistleblower process.

“There are a range of resources and training available to congressional staff on working with whistleblowers. Internal resources include oversight training and legal advice on specific inquiries related to whistleblowing when requested,” the report said.

“Committees or staff may also create training on whistleblowers and provide on-the-job training to their staff. Lastly, external organizations provide training to congressional staff on congressional oversight and working with whistleblowers.”

It is a prohibited practice to fire or otherwise retaliate against an employee that has made a protected disclosure to a member of Congress or other federal body under whistleblower protections.

But whistleblower retaliations do still occur, and the Merit Systems Protection Board currently lacks the members to stay questionable personnel actions pending review.

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