Consider the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Its Differing Professional Opinion program’s “rare degree of transparency is laudable,” the report says, “even as it reveals a troubling picture.”
Citing a 2016 survey, the report says 100 percent of responding NRC employees felt the agency’s process “led to negative consequences, such as changes to their professional responsibilities or being excluded from meetings or career development opportunities.”
In a statement, the NRC said it “continues to work to resolve differing views on agency regulatory actions with no fear of reprisal by the employees for their perspectives.”
Complaint pathways generally include an internal agency website for staff comments that are reviewed by a designated office, which sends them to the appropriate official. Some agencies allow anonymous comments, and some do not.
Whatever the process, whistleblowing is a risky business for federal employees. Retaliation is real for many feds who dare to speak against wrongs.
Just ask retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and former ambassadors Marie Yovanovitch and Gordon D. Sondland, who lost their high-powered positions after telling the truth about President Trump during House hearings that led to his impeachment.
One prominent use of protest platforms occurred in 2017 when 1,000 State Department employees used its Dissent Channel to complain about Trump’s initial travel ban against some Muslim-majority countries. Fanning the fear of retribution, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the dissenters should “get with the program or they can go.”
The report noted a “heightened risk of retaliation against dissenters under the current administration.” It said “despite professing to prize independent and critical thought, bureaucracies often tend to penalize it in practice, especially when it . . . might embarrass or anger agency leadership and even the White House.”
Data from the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, compiled by the Partnership for Public Service from federal employee surveys over 10 years, indicate steadily increasing agreement that employees can disclose violations “without fear of reprisal.”
Yet, the portion never exceeded 67 percent, which means almost 700,000 employees disagree.
Although Trump’s acts of revenge are notably egregious, reprisals against federal whistleblowers are not bound by party or administration. Procedures designed to facilitate “open, creative, and uncensored dialogue,” as the State Department describes its channel, frequently do not, particularly before bad things happen.
The report suggests that future reviews of Trump administration policies related to the coronavirus pandemic may unearth instances of federal employees whose unheeded warnings might have saved lives.
Similarly, the report says a future look back at the “innumerable unjust deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police” could result in a revisit of “policy changes made early in the Trump administration that significantly eased federal civil rights oversight of local law enforcement” and possibly enabled more police abuses.
Yet as POGO authors Daniel Van Schooten and Nick Schwellenbach note, “retrospective oversight is no substitute for mechanisms . . . that offer a protected channel for employees to propose policy changes or point out concerns with policies before a disaster occurs.”
That’s what the dissent channels are designed to do. Most agencies don’t provide dedicated channels for dissent. The report authors found only a half-dozen.
The first one was created in 1971 after William Rogers, secretary of state during the Nixon administration, realized he wasn’t getting accurate information about the Vietnam War. It’s not used much, only five to 10 times a year.
A State Department statement did not directly address questions about its Dissent Channel, but did say that “this is an important process that the Secretary and State Department senior leadership value and respect. . . . We welcome all points of view and opinions as part of this process.”
Usage might be low because the agency’s Dissent Channel seems useless to some employees. Citing a dissenter who criticized responses as “mealy-mouth,” the report said that “it’s common for dissenters to receive a response that does not engage the merits of the dissent.”
Even worse is when the response is retaliation.
Raymond Gallucci of Frederick knows about that. He described his NRC experience two years ago in a 2017 letter to The Washington Post.
“I have filed three differing professional opinions, and I have found myself not being assigned to projects or excluded from working groups on which I am ‘the’ agency expert, or being denied support for professional conferences that others with smaller roles and fewer presentations are permitted to attend,” Gallucci wrote, adding, “It is a sad state when one is ostracized for speaking up.”