The federal government is not doing enough to pursue civil servants' claims of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal workplace, a nonprofit employee advocacy group said this week.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, pointed to new federal statistics showing that although employee whistle-blower reports have risen in recent years, very few are being referred to agency heads for investigation.
The Office of Special Counsel, the independent federal agency charged with safeguarding the merit system and protecting employee whistle-blowers from reprisal, received 535 new reports of waste, mismanagement or abuse of authority in fiscal 2003. That compared with 555 new reports the previous year and 380 new reports in fiscal 2001, according to the agency's recent annual report to Congress.
The special counsel's office must refer such reports to agency heads for investigation if a preliminary evaluation determines that there is a "substantial likelihood" that wrongdoing occurred. Last year it decided 11 whistle-blower reports merited investigation and sent them to agencies, down from 19 a year earlier and 15 in 2001.
Ruch, whose organization has been critical of the Bush administration's labor and environmental policies, said the failure to investigate more whistle-blower cases contributes to inefficiency in government. It also increases the risk that health and safety concerns associated with government actions will go unexamined and discourages federal employees from reporting other violations, he said.
"All these [Office of Special Counsel] guys have to do is read it [a whistle-blower complaint] and make a decision about whether to pass it on. In many instances they are not doing anything. There is just sort of silence," Ruch said. "From the employees' point of view, they've got their heart in their mouths, taking enormous career risks, and they can't get anyone to read it."
The Office of Special Counsel had a backlog of 690 whistle-blower reports at the start of fiscal 2004, compared with a backlog of 556 in 2003 and 287 in 2002.
Scott J. Bloch, who took over as head of the office in January, said in a written statement that the agency needs to do better.
"I was astonished at the number of whistle-blower disclosures in backlog," Bloch said. He said later: "We are in the process of implementing structural changes and training that will enable us to prevent such backlogs from occurring in the future. Whistle-blowers, the public and the agencies all benefit from expeditious and fair consideration of claims."
Bloch also said he wants to increase the number of reports that are sent to agencies for investigation. "I am confident that we will realize significant results at the end of my first year," he said.