By Joan Wadelton, Guest Contributor
When King Augeas asked Hercules to clean out his stables, Hercules – seeing that the task was impossible by normal means – rerouted two rivers to wash out the years of filth. A tale those of us in Washington should heed, lest the American people – pushed beyond their limits – divert the Potomac and sweep all of us away.
Americans across party lines are deeply dissatisfied with Washington. And well they might be, as government incompetence and corruption have become hallmarks of the daily news cycle.
Congressional oversight of the Executive Branch is partisan and ineffective, with an Administration's party refusing to address problems within its agencies and the opposition party doing little else. Neither party is offering solutions.
The Executive Branch – which conducts the taxpayers' business and spends the taxpayers' money – appears incapable of policing its own operations. Endless public scandals demonstrate that agency Inspectors General have failed across the government.
And finally, whistleblowers – who provide a valuable service to the American people – routinely suffer retaliation. Whistleblower protection laws are inadequately enforced, employee protection entities (such as the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board) routinely side with management and Congress is indifferent.
A FEW PROPOSED REMEDIES
First – To Fix Agency Problems, Congress Must Be Aware of Them
Congress is frequently unaware of problems in the very Executive Branch agencies it is tasked with overseeing, even when they are well known inside the affected agency.
Reports of government mismanagement and corruption are frequent but scattershot. They can appear in press outlets or through watchdog groups. When whistleblowers do contact Congress, they may speak to offices without jurisdiction over the matter. This can mean that – while significant issues are being reported on many fronts – a lack of coordination obscures their severity.
Therefore, Congress should establish a coordinating mechanism to collect, investigate and resolve whistleblower complaints, press and GAO reports and other accounts of mismanagement and corruption in the Executive Branch. This mechanism would comprise bipartisan, bicameral staff committees organized by subject matter. For example, majority and minority staffers of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees would jointly compare and collate accounts of problems in foreign affairs agencies. Thereafter, they would investigate and recommend solutions for those that had reached critical mass.
Second – Correct Failings in the System of Agency Inspectors General
The Inspector General Act of 1978 (as amended) creates a three-pronged reporting requirement for agency Inspectors General – to their agency heads, to Congress and to the public. As press and other reports have documented in recent years, Inspectors General – entrusted by the American taxpayers to uncover and combat waste, fraud and mismanagement – have frequently failed to do so. Whether because of a refusal by agencies to implement findings and recommendations of Inspectors General, or through active wrongdoing by Inspectors General and their staffs, the system is not working.
Efforts by Inspectors General to cover-up internal agency problems probably have several roots, among them:
– a misguided desire to please the agency head by whitewashing internal unpleasantness such as incompetence and criminality. This may mean suppressing whistleblower complaints and refusing to launch investigations – even in the most egregious and public matters; and
– a reluctance to point fingers at agency friends and colleagues who have engaged in wrongdoing – whether from simple loyalty or because those friends and colleagues can provide some benefit to Office of Inspector General staffers (e.g., awards, recommendations).
I therefore propose the following:
1) Alter the existing reporting chain of Inspectors General by removing the direct report to their agency heads and having them report to another entity inside the Executive Branch. One of the following could be expanded and reconfigured to fulfill this role:
– the Office of Management and Budget; or
– the Office of Special Counsel; or
– the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.
Alternatively, a White House Office of Inspections and Audits could be created specifically to perform this task.
2) Reduce the potential for concealment of agency wrongdoing by Inspectors General arising from ties of friendship or a desire for bureaucratic benefit by creating an independent US Government Inspector General Corps. This freestanding Corps would have its own Civil Service career track, with mandatory rotations of inspectors among agencies according to their chosen specialties. For example, foreign affairs inspectors could rotate from the State Department to the international division of the Commerce Department to the US Agency for International Development. Many US government agencies are similar enough that a build-up and transfer of expertise would be relatively painless.
Third – Don't Punish Whistleblowers – Reward Them
In an Internet, cellphone camera, blogging world, nothing is secret and no one can hide. The Internet is provoking anti-corruption activities and campaigns all over the world. A crooked parliamentarian can be exposed on a blog; a policeman taking a bribe can be caught on a cell phone camera. The Internet is a whistleblower's dream and public revelations of wrongdoing will only increase.
Despite this, our government continues to punish (albeit illegally) whistleblowers for saving the American people money and ensuring public health and safety. Retaliation is often devastating and although federal law provides remedies to make whistleblowers whole, that happens rarely – and generally only through lengthy and expensive litigation.
Whistleblowers ensure our government's effectiveness and integrity and should not simply be shielded from punishment, but actively compensated. Therefore, I propose that Congress amend the Whistleblower Protection Act to provide rewards to whistleblowers.
Currently, private persons who uncover fraud in federal contracting may receive significant monetary rewards. Bizarrely, career employees who perform this same service for the American people, may not. Thus, a contractor who reports irregularities in – for example – production of a new weapons system – could receive a percentage of the money saved by fixing the problem. A career Defense Department employee who reported the same thing, would not.
An incentive structure that mirrors the existing one for private sector whistleblowers should be created for government whistleblowers. There are thousands of career employees who might be willing to risk reporting embezzlement, bribery and other costly wrongdoing if there were a monetary reward. Other benefits such as promotions and cash awards could be found for employees who report wrongdoing that does not involve financial loss to Uncle Sam.
We should take advantage of the public's desire for change in Washington evident in this election cycle. The moment for broad-scale, long overdue government reform is here.