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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