Backing Up Whistleblowers

Protecting workers who speak out starts with agency leaders.

After another major blow on Capitol Hill, federal whistleblowers might have to look elsewhere for support. A bill that would have increased protections for federal employees who come forward about problems at their agencies looked like a done deal late last year, but it fell just short. Perhaps real change must come from within agencies-from senior managers.

Concerns that the 2010 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act would protect those who released classified information similar to what WikiLeaks published put the brakes on the bill before the lame duck session ended in December. The legislation would have given whistleblowers the right to a jury trial and would have expanded protections to those who are not the first to come forward.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, says the nonprofit group now will focus on getting the protections enacted through an executive order. She says the White House has been open to the idea.

In a way, Brian says, an executive order would be better than legislation, because it would address the leadership barriers to protection. "We've been recommending for years that Cabinet secretaries and the president set the example and show managers that someone at the top of the pecking order can embrace the changes [a whistleblower] is suggesting," she says.

Down the road, a president who does not support tougher protections simply could revoke the order. "But it would be an important message," she says.

Even without an executive order, managers can play a crucial cultural role in protecting and even encouraging whistleblowers. "If a person comes forward and the manager embraces that and fixes it, they should make a big deal of it-recognize and reward them, so there's not a culture of fear," Brian says.

But many managers are reluctant to encourage disclosures about agency abuses or inefficiencies. "Institutionally we find managers thinking they're going to advance by protecting the status quo at all costs," she says.

While lawmakers worried that the whistleblower legislation would encourage more WikiLeaks-type disclosures, in which sensitive government documents were aired publicly, Brian says the opposite is true. Someone who leaks classified information illegally would not be protected under the bill. Providing a safe, internal outlet for disclosures can prevent employees from feeling they have no option other than to go to the media or an organization like WikiLeaks, she says.

In the private sector, companies are bolstering internal whistleblower protections. Some of these changes have come in response to recent legislation that requires the Securities and Exchange Commission to compensate workers who come forward to report corporate fraud. By adopting a similar attitude, federal managers could avoid high-profile disclosures.

Much of the rhetoric around whistleblower protection is framed in a good-versus-evil narrative, with advocates touting the need to protect noble employees who have done the right thing. But perhaps it's the more practical reality that will motivate managers and senior leaders. If supervisors are willing to accept constructive notification of internal failures, then they can protect themselves and their agencies from the public relations disasters that follow disclosures to oversight agencies, Congress, the media or websites willing to publish the information.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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