Fear of retaliation

Nearly 20 percent of federal employees fear reporting agency wrongdoing, according to a recent government survey.

That’s a vexing percentage by any measure, but especially for agencies such as the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, which, rocked by a scandal over falsifying veteran medical appointments, is telling workers who see something to say something.

Two government surveys show that skepticism and fear remain.

The Office of Personnel Management asked in its annual government-wide poll whether employees agree or disagree with the statement, “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, up 0.4 percentage points from 2012; 61.2 percent of employees agreed or strongly agreed, down by 0.3 percentage points. The rest were neutral.

Those results were less troubling than a 2010 survey from the Merit Systems Protection Board, which showed nearly 30 percent of workers feared reprisals.

MSPB, which hears appeals of personnel actions taken against federal employees, recently released an analysis of its 2010 study, its most recent.

Respondents who expressed doubt said they feared their lives might become more difficult if they spoke up. The survey, a follow-up to a similar one MSPB conducted in 1992, also asked whether employees personally had observed illegal or wasteful activities at their agency in the previous 12 months. In 2010, 11.1 percent of employees said 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. Fear of retaliation and a belief that nothing would be done to address the problem were cited as reasons, 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 its analysis this month.

“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.”

In the MSPB survey, of those who were identified as the source of a disclosure, about a third said they were threatened or experienced retaliation, compared with 7 percent who said they were credited by management.

MSPB’s recent analysis offered agency-specific information that was not in its earlier report. For example, 82 percent of NASA employees agreed that their agency encourages exposing wrongdoing, but just 43 percent at Housing and Urban Development said the same.

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 Friday, and results will be released later this year.

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.

The Office of Special Counsel, which protects federal whistleblowers against reprisals, is investigating alleged retaliation against 37 VA employees who reported wrongdoing, though 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.

Eric Yoder