Whistleblowers play an invaluable role in the federal government. They serve as the taxpayer’s eyes, ears and voice. By calling out waste and fraud, they ensure that the government works for the people it’s meant to serve.
However, their service is only effective so long as they continue to report the abuses they uncover. And that’s an issue that recently caused the Inspector General who oversees the Department of Defense to express his concern. As the Government Executive reported, the IG noted a “disturbing trend” of whistleblower retaliation.
Retaliation hurts everyone
It goes without saying that the DoD’s retaliatory actions have harmed the whistleblowers. They’ve been fired and had their careers stunted. And even though this retaliation is clearly illegal, the DoD can often block the MSPB from reviewing its discipline. The agency can flaunt its retaliation by claiming that an employee was working with “sensitive” information that “implicates national security.”
But retaliation reaches far beyond the individual whistleblower. The Government Executive polled DoD employees. They found that one-third were now less likely to report wrongdoing. So even as senators want to know about the issues reported by whistleblowers, we’re likely to see fewer of these issues reported. That could mean more workers may be exposed to harmful chemicals. We could see billions of dollars wasted with limited accountability.
Accordingly, the IG’s recent statements have prompted a series of recommendations. The IG and other advocates have suggested the government and Congress could:
- Be more transparent about the instances of reported whistleblower retaliation
- Allow victims to go straight to court, instead of the OPM or MSPB
- Pass stricter laws for whistleblower protection
- Grant DoD employees more power to challenge unfair punishments
If lawmakers and agencies don’t protect the whistleblowers who have come forward, they harm every future whistleblower. And that means removing one of the nation’s best defenses against government waste and abuse.
Whistleblowers are supposed to get more protection, not less
The DoD’s secretive whistleblower retaliation is not the way things are supposed to work. In fact, it’s very nearly the opposite. Agencies that discipline whistleblowers are supposed to do more than show they had reason for their discipline. They’re supposed to prove that they would have taken the same action against a non-whistleblower.
This leads to yet another way that retaliation harms everyone: When agencies like the DoD don’t protect their whistleblowers, that can lead to ongoing legal action. That’s time, money, talent and energy spent on activities that advance neither the agency’s core mission nor the greater public.