Whistleblower agency attacks case backlog

Federal employees lodging allegations of waste, fraud and abuse may start receiving more timely responses to their complaints, the head of the office processing those complaints said Thursday.

In recent meetings, senior staff members at the Office of Special Counsel developed an aggressive strategy for eliminating a severe backlog of whistleblower cases and prohibited personnel practice complaints by the end of the year, said Scott Bloch, head of OSC.

The plan calls for senior staff members to take on the cases piling up, he said. OSC will also hire additional attorneys and investigators.

Even if the strategy does not completely eliminate the backlog in a year, the plan should make a significant dent in cases, Bloch said. OSC usually assigns less seasoned staff members to tackle cases that have piled up, he explained. By transferring some of this work to teams with experienced attorneys, the office can dispose of the complaints quickly, and can arrive at a more equitable resolution.

Whistleblowers and victims of prohibited personnel practices deserve to have the "best minds" reviewing their complaints, Bloch said. The workers also deserve a swift response from OSC, especially considering the serious nature of many of the allegations. "We can't sit by and let these conditions fester . . . without taking some action," he said.

OSC is charged with reviewing allegations of government waste, fraud and abuse. The office also protects federal employees against unfair personnel practices, including discrimination and whistleblower retaliation, and prosecutes violators of the Hatch Act, a law restricting the political activities of government workers.

In recent years, OSC has faced a growing pileup of whistleblower cases and a somewhat smaller backlog of prohibited personnel practice complaints, General Accounting Office auditors reported in a study published Wednesday. The law requires the office to decide within 15 days whether to pass allegations of waste, fraud and abuse along for further investigation. For cases alleging prohibited personnel practices, the statute allows OSC 240 days.

From 1997 to 2003 OSC processed 26 percent of whistleblower disclosures and 77 percent of personnel cases within the statutory time limit, GAO found. OSC faced backlogs of 669 whistleblower complaints and 204 prohibited personnel practice cases at the end of September 2003, the close of the fiscal year. This represents 97 percent of all whistleblower cases and 31 percent of prohibited personnel practice cases.

The personnel complaint backlog remained relatively steady over the seven-year period, peaking at 326 complaints for fiscal 2001, the GAO statistics indicated. But the whistleblower cases accumulated steadily over the same years, rising from a backlog of 229 in fiscal 1997 to a pile of 669 by the close of fiscal 2003.

The backlog exists partly because OSC "becomes very involved in and unnecessarily bogged down in lengthy litigation," Bloch said. Another problem is that some cases are simply not reviewed. "The main problem with the backlog is that nobody's looking at [the cases]," he said.

Bloch's predecessor, Elaine Kaplan, said Thursday that she believes staffing shortages "are the primary cause of the backlog." Kaplan, a Clinton appointee, left OSC in June 2003.

In some ways, OSC also has been "a victim of its own success," Kaplan said. Following a string of high-profile cases, OSC saw a spike in allegations of waste, fraud and abuse. The number of whistleblower complaints OSC received grew from 380 in fiscal 2001 to 555 in fiscal 2002, and 535 the next year, according to GAO data.

Bloch agreed that his office could benefit from a larger staff. In an ideal world, OSC would hire at least 20 attorneys and investigators, he said. But in the meantime, the office is in the process of bringing on seven staff members, and will request funding for additional hires in fiscal 2005.

Past hiring spurts at OSC have not always resulted in more efficient case processing, GAO researchers noted in the report (GAO-04-36). The office disposed of roughly the same number of cases in fiscal 2003 as in fiscal 1999, despite a 16 percent increase in staff attorneys and investigators during that period.

"While resources may be a factor, our analysis of the agency's recent performance after hiring more staff raises questions about whether gaining authority to hire more staff would produce the desired results," GAO stated.

New hires might not necessarily result in a "straight line increase in productivity," Kaplan said. There are other variables at play, including training time and employee turnover, she explained. "I think the agency needs a massive staff increase, in order to make a real dent in the backlog without sacrificing other important values like quality and customer service," she said.

She added that the office should not merely strive to move cases along quickly. "OSC has often been criticized for failing to conduct a sufficiently thorough investigation of complaints," she said. "A more thorough investigation requires more time. There is no simple fix for this-it is a balancing problem." Bloch said he would focus on hiring the right people to help reduce the backlogs. Ideal additions to OSC's staff would have talent and experience in practicing law, but would also possess the ability to analyze business processes and move cases along.

OSC also could reduce case processing times by "maintaining open lines of communications and working with whistleblowers," said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit watchdog group. "I've been doing this for 25 years, and there's no secret on how you get more bang for the buck," he said. "You work with the whistleblowers."

Often whistleblowers filing complaints do not include all of the facts that OSC needs, Devine explained. Rather than simply dismissing the case, the office should let the complainants know what is missing, and give them an opportunity to produce the appropriate information, he said.

By talking with the whistleblowers more, OSC also would arrive at better informed decisions, Devine said: "OSC close out letters explaining why the case didn't have merit often reflect an embarrassing ignorance of easily obtainable facts."

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