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The data on federal whistleblowing and its consequences

Many federal employees feel vulnerable to retaliation if they make such disclosures, according to data from two central personnel agencies, the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The role of whistleblowers — and the potential for retaliation against them — is an ongoing issue in the VA scheduling scandal. The department last week sent a memo encouraging employees to make disclosures and promising to crack down on anyone who retaliates against them.

However, a 2010 survey from the MSPB, which hears appeals of personnel actions taken against federal employees, showed that nearly 30 percent of respondents felt that their lives might become more difficult if they reported inappropriate practices.

The survey, a follow-up to a similar one MSPB conducted in 1992, also asked whether employees had personally observed illegal or wasteful activities at their agency in the prior 12 months. In 2010, 11.1 percent of employees answered yes, down from 17.7 percent in 1992.

In both years, though, more than a third of those said they did not make a report. Among the major considerations driving a decision whether to make a report or not were fear of retaliation and a belief that nothing would be done to address the problem, the survey showed.

“One of the most important things that an agency can do to learn about internal wrongdoing is to establish a culture that encourages employees to report perceived problems,” the MSPB said in an analysis this month of its survey. “Agencies should know where their culture stands so that they can determine the extent of their need for improvement and measure whether improvement is occurring.”

The MSPB has not conducted a similar survey since 2010. But the OPM includes a related question in its annual government-wide poll, asking whether employees agree or disagree with the statement that “I can disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.”

Last year, 19.5 percent of employees disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement, up 0.4 percentage points from 2012; 61.2 percent of employees agreed or strongly agreed, down by 0.3 percentage points, and the rest were neutral.

Employee views about potential whistleblower retaliation have varied relatively little since 2010 in the OPM poll. The high point in employee confidence was 2011, when 62.5 percent responded positively and 17.8 percent responded negatively.

The 2014 version of that survey closed last Friday and results are to be announced later in the year.

In the MSPB survey, of those who did step forward and were identified as the source of a disclosure, about a third said they were threatened with or actually experienced retaliation, compared with just 7 percent who were given credit by management for identifying a problem. Forms of reprisal included firing, suspension, grade level downgrade, and transfers to different locations or to jobs with less desirable duties.

Below is a graph showing what happened to the 2010 survey respondents who said they reported wrongdoing.

And here is a graph showing which types of wrongdoing the 2010 survey respondents said they saw.

(Graphics by Josh Hicks/Washington Post)

The MSPB’s survey further found that 13 percent of respondents indicated that their agencies did not actively encourage them to report wrongdoing, compared to 63 percent who said their agencies did encourage such disclosures; the rest were neutral.

MSPB’s recent analysis provided some agency-specific information on that issue not in its earlier report.  For example, 82 percent of NASA employees agreed that their agency encourages them to expose wrongdoing, but only 43 percent at Housing and Urban Development personnel said the same.

Within the VA, 69 percent of Veterans Health Administration employees agreed, compared to 61 percent within the Veterans Benefits Administration.

And within the Department of Homeland Security, 69 percent of Customs and Border Protection employees agreed that they were encouraged to step forward, but only 58 percent in the Transportation Security Administration said the same.

“Wrongdoing will often be seen and reported on the local level. For this reason, whistleblowing culture is like real estate — location matters,” MSPB said in its recent analysis.

In addition, the original report said that “Saving lives is more important to respondents than whether they will experience punishment or a reward, and whether the agency will act on a report of wrongdoing matters more than any fear of an unpleasant consequence for the employee making the report.”

The Office of Special Counsel, which protects federal whistleblowers against reprisals,  is investigating alleged retaliation against 37 VA employees who reported wrongdoing, although not all of it related to the scheduling scandal.

Additionally, the House and Senate have passed bills to end or limit the rights of senior VA employees to challenge demotions or firings, which could undercut their ability to defend themselves against retaliation. The Senate legislation would provide for a much-shortened appeal process, allowing workers to appeal the decisions and requiring the MSPB to issue a final determination within one month.