Report shows little progress reducing case backlog at OSC

By Jenny Mandel

November 9, 2006

A federal agency that handles complaints of improper personnel actions made little headway in reducing its case backlog, despite an intensive year-long attempt to do so, according to a report released Tuesday.

Published more than a year after the reporting period, the Office of Special Counsel's fiscal 2005 annual report touted a major effort to reduce a backlog in employee complaints of prohibited personnel practices. The report attributed poor results in the timeliness of resolved cases -- the agency processed 68 percent of its cases quickly in 2005, down from 86 percent of cases the previous year -- to the inclusion of older cases from the backlog.

But after starting 2005 with an inventory of 524 cases to resolve, OSC finished the year with almost as many -- 521 cases -- to be passed along.

The agency's rate of obtaining results favorable to the complainant on personnel-related cases fell to 2.5 percent in fiscal 2005, from 3.8 percent in fiscal 2004 and 6.6 percent in fiscal 2003. Officials said the drop stemmed from the resolution of older cases that had been neglected because they were not strong, and said they expect fiscal 2006 numbers to show an increase in favorable actions.

OSC also processed and closed 473 whistleblower disclosures -- cases in which employees flagged wasteful, unlawful, abusive or dangerous practices by the government -- in fiscal 2005. Of those, it found that 19, or 4 percent, had plausible merit and referred them to the agencies concerned for further investigation. In fiscal 2004, OSC looked at 1,154 complaints and referred 18 of them, for a 1.6 percent rate.

Whistleblower advocacy groups contended that the one-year increase in percentage referred was misleading, because the rate has fallen from more than 6 percent in 2002.

The OSC process of screening whistleblower complaints for their plausibility, then referring them to the appropriate agency for investigation and assessing whether that investigation was adequate, allows the office leeway in how aggressively to pursue cases. Adam Miles, legislative representative with the Government Accountability Project, said that under Special Counsel Scott Bloch, OSC is "not holding agencies' feet to the fire like they did when [his predecessor] Elaine Kaplan was there."

The annual report also showed a significant drop in the use of mediation to resolve employee disputes. It referenced a change in "operating philosophy" under which fewer cases are considered for mediation, and a drop in the percentage of complainants who accept mediation when offered. That fell from 68 percent in fiscal 2004 to 27 percent in fiscal 2005. The report did not offer an explanation for the lower acceptance rate.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the mediation office lost its only highly trained mediator in 2005 when she turned down a directed reassignment to Detroit. He cited her loss as one symptom of OSC's failure to represent the interests of federal employees.

A group of anonymous OSC employees, as well as PEER, GAP and the Project on Government Oversight, have filed a complaint against Bloch alleging numerous prohibited personnel practices including discrimination, retaliation and political bias. Bloch denied all the charges, and the matter was referred to Office of Personnel Management Inspector General Patrick McFarland for investigation, to avoid OSC investigating itself.

An OSC spokesman did not respond to questions on the report.

In May 2005, the House Committee on Government Reform reviewed allegations that OSC was too quick to dismiss cases from its backlog. After visiting the office and examining case files, Republican committee leaders congratulated Bloch in a letter on the conclusion of the assessment. "At the end of this period of review, one previously critical Senate staffer informed us 'we have satisfied ourselves that they did not throw any folders into the Potomac,'" the letter stated.

By Jenny Mandel

November 9, 2006