Setting the tone for an ethical culture

The number of whistleblowers within federal agencies has spiked radically, but leaders need to continue nurturing a culture that promotes ethical behavior, said panelists at a recent discussion.

"We are seeing a huge increase now in people who blow the whistle," said Jason Zuckerman, senior legal adviser to the special counsel at the Office of Special Counsel. "We are getting about 2,800 in prohibited personnel practice complaints annually; two years ago, it was about 2,200. In 2002, it was about 1,600."

OSC acts as an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency. It focuses on protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, including nepotism, discrimination, political activity coercion and whistleblowing retaliation.

In a recent case, the agency issued a report detailing retaliation against four employees who exposed the mishandling of human remains at the Port Mortuary in Dover, Del. In another incident, OSC stepped in to investigate claims that the Federal Drug Administration monitored employees’ emails after they had blown the whistle on the agency’s approval of unsafe medical devices.

In investigating whistleblower retaliation, OSC often builds its cases with circumstantial evidence because it’s rarely a straightforward incident with clear proof of wrongdoing, said Zuckerman, who spoke at an April 17 panel at the Federal Senior Management Conference.

"There aren’t that many people who are stupid enough to say, 'We need to get rid of X employee because he blew the whistle about this,'" he said. "We just don’t see that evidence often."

To put together a case is a painstaking process, which requires manpower and time. A case dealing with prohibited personnel practices can take longer than a year for OSC to investigate, which adds to the already growing workload in an agency that staffs only 100 employees.

"We certainly could use more help . . . we don’t act as quickly as we would like," Zuckerman said.

In the wake of the overspending debacle at the General Services Administration, agencies are becoming acutely aware of the need to foster an ethical culture. To set the tone for good leadership, senior managers should focus on projecting authenticity, said Barbara Mullen-Roth, deputy director at the Office of Government Ethics.

"If you get somebody in the position of leadership [who] is not committed to doing the right thing, that’s going to emanate through the various management platforms and down through the employee platform in some way," she said.

Because many top federal leaders are presidentially appointed, "the onus, I believe, is on White House personnel," Mullen-Roth said.

"They need to make sure that the name they put forward to the president for selection nominee is a critical one," she said. "And I don’t know if we ever talk about that – how that process starts."

But for government leaders in general, Mullen-Roth emphasized the credibility factor.

"We have to be authentic, we have to demonstrate, we have to be visible that we’re going to do the right thing, and that we expect employees to do the right thing as well," she said.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Reader comments

Mon, Apr 23, 2012

In the federal government It is extremely rare to get somebody in the position of leadership [who] is not committed to doing the right thing. Thus the lack of personal ethics emanates through the various management platforms and down through the employee platform in some way. Upper management has the attitude that ethics rules don’t apply to them. The rules apply to someone else, not them.

Sun, Apr 22, 2012 disgusted with our leaders

Unfortunately, little space was used to really expound on one of the leading causes of unethical behavior: "Because many top federal leaders are presidentially appointed, "the onus, I believe, is on White House personnel,..." along with Congressional leadership. The GSA and Secret Service scandals are only the tip of the iceberg of staff taking their cues from higher ups. If the FLOTUS can list her kids as "staff" to avoid paying for their airfare tickets on one of their many vacations, do you think the Secret Service does not know this? If the POTUS can sneak in a few fund raising stops in his token speech to justify having the trip classified as a federal function instead of a campaign trip do you think the federal workers don't know this splitting of hairs to abuse the use of taxpayers money? Or how about demanding use of government jets and their attendant free liquor accounts to make weekly "trips home"? Unfortunately, our current leaders think they're too slick and that they can get away with all this but actually they themselves are just showing the lower federal staffers what the edges of tolerance are in trying to skirt responsibility for taking care of taxpayers dollars. The hypocrisy is astounding.

Fri, Apr 20, 2012 Washington, Dc

Unfortunately, the Federal workers and officials who need to real this article probably won't. These Fed. workforce or so busy playing the political game that benefit them that efficiency and effectiveness is the least of their concern. Note the GSA scandal where the GSA executive took the 5th -- they knew of his malfeasance, yet his still got his $9K performance award for that year. This is not unique, or a oversight, I bet its common practice in most of these agencies. Don't buck the chain.

Fri, Apr 20, 2012

One ethical aspect that has not been addressed is professional conduct. Our ethics laws are for the issues that were salient in the 19th and early 20th Centuries: conflict of interest and politicization of the workforce. We need a 21st Century ethical code, along the lines of professional organizations such as the American Statistical Association, to guide our work. This includes, and is by no means limited to, properly attributing work to fellow federal employees and honesty in work interactions.

Fri, Apr 20, 2012 SITTING ON THE FENCE VA

THE BIGGER "BOIL" ON THE BACKSIDE OF ALL THIS IS THE REPLACEMENT OF MILITARY PERSONNEL WITH CIVILIAN PERSONNEL IN MILITARY COMMANDS...DOING WRONG IN THE MILITARY CARRIES FARTHER REACHING PENALTIES THAN IT DOES FOR CIVILIANS...IT MAY "COST" MORE TO EMPLOY A MILITARY MEMBER- BUT THERE IS LESS COST TO MANAGE & INVESTIGATE... I ALSO NEED TO STATE THAT THIS WAS THE "MILITARY" PRIOR TO THE EARLY 90'S...THOUGH IT STARTED IN THE 80'S...THE "MORAL INTEGRITY" OF OUR MILITARY HAS BEEN ERODED WITH THE CONSTANT LOWERING OF THE STANDARDS OF ENLISTMENT...WE HAVE MORE GANGS IN THE MILITARY AND MORE THREATS IN UNIFORM...BECAUSE OF THE "MORAL & ETHICAL DECAY" IN OUR GOVERNMENT... I KNOW "INVESTIGATIONS" AREN'T DONE WHEN "PHYSICAL" EVIDENCE OF THE FRAUD WASTE ABUSE IS PRESENT- GIVEN NAMES DATES TIMES LOCATONS...ETC...DEALING WITH CIVILIAN EMPLOYEES- I EVEN GAVE MY NAME & FOLLOWED UP...NO FEEDBACK- THE FRUAD WASTE AND ABUSE CONTINUES...AND WAS PROMOTED...

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