By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009
Federal inspectors general too often ignore or discount the complaints of whistleblowers, and concerned citizens attempting to report government waste or mismanagement may face difficulty making even basic contact with the offices via telephone or the Internet, according to a new report from a government watchdog group.
The report, released late last week by the independent Project on Government Oversight (POGO), revealed vast inconsistencies in the accessibility, design and ease of use of the Web sites of the inspector general offices. "Some of the largest departments have only the tiniest, faintest link to their IG's home page, while several very small and frankly obscure agencies have easily found links that jump off the agency home page," according to the report.
Many offices of the inspector general outsource their telephone hotlines, forfeiting a good deal of control over operators and the complaints they compile. When POGO staffers called the inspector general hotlines for the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation, the same operator at a third-party call center answered the phone. "The hotline operators -- local college students, according to one IG who uses the service -- also simultaneously handle the hotlines for several private companies."
David Colapinto, general counsel with the National Whistleblowers Center, agreed with the report's findings and suggested lawmakers need to pay closer attention to the process.
"I think that when Congress appropriates more money and they hear these reports from the IGs, they think they're supporting whistleblowers and addressing the problem when they're really not," Colapinto said. "A lot more needs to be done in this area."
Many inspector general offices may have difficulty identifying serious hotline reports of waste, fraud and abuse because they are also alerted to minor complaints they cannot address. Kenneth Mead, who served as the Transportation Department inspector general from 1997 to 2006, recalled getting calls to his office about potholes in Maine.
"It's important that people have some place to vent, but you don't want real senior-level people handling calls like that," he said, adding that hotlines need better-trained staff members to effectively process legitimate, serious complaints.
The expanding workload of watchdogs at larger agencies may also be to blame for the short-shrifting of complaints. In addition to overseeing the work of tens of thousands of federal employees, some inspectors general are now responsible for tracking the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding from the economic recovery package.
This is the second annual report on inspectors general from POGO, and it includes feedback from most of the federal government's 64 investigative offices. Despite its criticisms, POGO gives generally favorable reviews to their overall mission and culture.
"This is not a broken system, but we do think there are new ways of thinking about IGs," said POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian. "Everyone recognizes the importance of the job."