President Trump is correct to hold federal employees accountable, even as he and his folks make every effort to squirm away from a steady flow of ethical quandaries.
His executive order on “Improving Accountability and Whistleblower Protections” would create an office in the Department of Veterans Affairs to identify barriers to bouncing bad workers from an agency whose ethical reputation was shredded during a scandal over the coverup of long patient wait times.
The importance of this presidential action was emphasized by Trump’s visit to the VA headquarters, just across Lafayette Square from the White House. Vice President Pence, members of Congress and veterans joined VA Secretary David Shulkin as the president signed the order Thursday afternoon.
Trump praised the “many VA employees who do a fantastic job,” a reality too often lost in discussions about the agency.
“This executive order makes it clear,” he said, “that we will never, ever tolerate substandard care for our great veterans. With the creation of this office, we are sending a strong message: Those who fail our veterans will be held, for the first time, accountable.”
Trump seems to think he created all that’s good. He is not the first to hold VA employees accountable.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Shulkin said the new VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection will help officials deal with employees who “should no longer be working [at] VA, and make sure that we can do that expeditiously.” He didn’t have a cost estimate for this new layer of bureaucracy, which he said will confront “systemic barriers that prevent us from making the right decisions.” But the secretary did say it would not be “small amounts. This is going to be a substantial commitment.”
Unfortunately, the administration’s commitment to move “expeditiously” was not accompanied by a promise to balance swiftness with fairness. Civil service protections were not even an afterthought at the executive order signing ceremony. Due process was not mentioned there by Trump, Pence or Shulkin, or in the order itself.
The order charges the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection with assisting the secretary in using “all available authorities to discipline or terminate” employees who violate the public’s trust and identifying statutory obstacles that get in the secretary’s way as he seeks to do that.
This rush to fire feds faster, first at VA, but with attempts to spread it across government, comes with a serious risk. Yes, due process rights can be slow and cumbersome. They protect, however, not just employees, but more importantly, also the public from a politicized system that favors citizens of one political party over another. Reforms must respect civil service protections. They should be acknowledged by government leaders and not be ignored as they were at the signing.
Furthermore, those protections protect whistleblowers.
While expedited firing has a certain appeal, allowing faster firing also could empower vengeful managers to more easily dismiss employees who report cases of agency waste, fraud and abuse.
The notion of protecting whistleblowers with the new VA office was met with skepticism by those who actually protect them from aggression by individual managers every day.
Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, said he appreciated Trump’s “good intentions” but that “it would be unprecedented for this office to be an effective, genuine resource for whistleblowers. As a rule, internal agency whistleblower offices always have been Trojan Horses.”
Elizabeth Hempowicz, policy counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, agreed.
She pointed to the VA’s Central Whistleblower Office, created by Congress last year to investigate whistleblower complaints and charges of retaliation against them. Because it is housed within VA, without “proper independence,” she said, “our worry is that it risks becoming an internal clearinghouse to help agency managers identify and retaliate against whistleblowers.”
Congressional Republicans, who generally speaking have advanced numerous workplace protection dilution measures, were full of praise for Trump.
“I applaud the Trump administration for taking action to hold bad actors accountable and enhance whistleblower protections throughout the VA,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
But will the administration enhance those protections or provide cover to subvert them, as whistleblower advocates fear?