How to foster a more ethical culture

At a time when government accountability has suffered serious blows, the Office of Special Counsel has become increasingly crucial in fostering an ethical culture and protecting the rights of federal whistle-blowers.

OSC is an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency that safeguards the merit system by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal for whistle-blowing, and enforces the civilian employment and re-employment rights of military service members under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act and the Hatch Act.

Before joining OSC as senior legal adviser to the special counsel in July 2011, Jason Zuckerman represented whistle-blowers in the public and private sectors and was active in efforts to strengthen whistle-blower protections. Zuckerman recently talked with staff writer Camille Tuutti about the importance of OSC's work and how managers can ensure that federal workplaces adhere to ethical standards.

FCW: How can federal managers foster a more ethical culture, especially amid budget pressures and anti-government sentiments?

Zuckerman: I'm glad that you ask about culture because in my experience representing whistle-blowers, culture makes all the difference. Optimal policies or procedures don't amount to much if the culture is broken.

Management must make ongoing efforts to reinforce an ethical culture. This includes offering ongoing training, rewarding ethical conduct and holding employees at every level accountable for unethical conduct. Management must lead by example and set the right tone at the top. For example, management should praise employees for disclosing wasteful spending or unethical conduct.

FCW: What can federal managers and employees do if faced with an ethical dilemma?

Zuckerman: The Merit System Principles and the 14 principles of ethical conduct are a good starting point to assess the best path forward when confronting an ethical dilemma.

The first principle is that "public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws and ethical principles above private gain." In other words, federal employees have a duty to act in the public interest and should oppose unlawful or unethical conduct.

Similarly, ethics principle No. 11 requires employees to disclose waste, fraud, abuse and corruption to appropriate authorities, and merit principle No. 4 requires federal employees to maintain concern for the public interest.

Disclosing wasteful spending, gross mismanagement, and dangers to public health or safety is an important responsibility of every federal employee. But understandably, many employees fear reprisal, and fortunately, employees can disclose wrongdoing anonymously to an inspector general or to OSC.

It's important for an employee to understand the scope and limitations of applicable whistle-blower protection laws, including loopholes that leave whistle-blowers with little or no protection against reprisal. Hopefully, those loopholes will be eliminated if Congress enacts the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

FCW: You have said that the number of whistle-blower cases filed with OSC has increased. What is behind that trend?

Zuckerman: OSC is experiencing significant increases in its caseload in all program areas, including a substantial increase in whistle-blower disclosures and whistle-blower retaliation complaints. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner has injected a new vigor in the agency and raised the public profile of OSC. Over the past year, OSC has handled several high-profile matters, demonstrating its critical role in helping whistle-blowers disclose and remediate waste, fraud and abuse, and other wrongdoing and showing that OSC will protect whistle-blowers who suffer reprisal.

As OSC becomes more visible and continues to demonstrate its effectiveness, more employees will disclose wrongdoing to OSC and seek relief when they are subjected to whistle-blower retaliation. Also, at a time when government is focused on cost cutting, more employees understand the importance of identifying and reporting wasteful spending, gross mismanagement and abuse of authority. Indeed, disclosures to OSC about wasteful or improper spending go a long way in promoting efficiency and accountability in government and saving taxpayer dollars.

About the Author

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

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