Carolyn Lerner, the nominee to lead the Office of Special Counsel, said she plans to restore faith in the agency and increase morale, communication, education and outreach.
“My goal, if confirmed to Special Counsel, is to have it be an agency where you feel comfortable referring your constituents,” said Lerner during a nomination hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Thursday. “If they come to your offices with a problem, someone has a whistleblower complaint or a USERRA [Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act] complaint or a disclosure or feels they are being discriminated against because of a prohibited personnel practice, I want you to feel very confident in referring them to the Office of Special Counsel.”
Lerner does not have experience working in OSC, the independent investigative agency dedicated to protecting feds from prohibited personnel practices which include backlash for whistle blowing. But she did suggest some improvements could be made to the OSC’s handling of the USERRA, which OSC currently shares cases with the Department of Labor.
“The expectation is that there are going to be between 400-500 new matters for the USERRA unit and right now, that [OSC] unit only has three full-time employees,” Lerner said.
With the staff of OSC limited, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) said OSC should focus on adequately training agencies on their responsibilities under USERRA to reduce the number of claims.
Lerner said that training is extremely important and wants to improve the certification process under which agencies learn how to be compliant with the law. She also said that the use of technology and the internet to increase availability of training materials to agencies would be helpful.
Lerner has a background in law covering matters such as civil rights and employment issues.
Akaka said OSC is experiencing low morale. Lerner said her solutions would be to use her law experience with workplace issues, mediation skills and talking directly to employees to clarify the situation and formulate a plan.
The committee also brought up the budget constraints across government and asked Lerner how she would handle resources.
“I think this is an agency that can save the government money,” she said. “Just like you wouldn’t fire IRS auditors to do fewer audits of tax returns, I think cutting back on this particular agency would be ill-advised.”
Lerner also supported whistleblowers, calling them “essential.”
“In the private sector, whistleblowers save a lot of money,” she said. “They save more than internal compliance officers, federal law enforcement and inspector generals combined.”
Akaka asked Lerner how she would approach OSC’s handling of regulating partisan activities under the Hatch Act and if it needed to be reviewed.
“There should be changes, or at least a review of how effective the Hatch Act is if changes need to be made given recent technologies,” Lerner said.
Overall, Lerner said that cooperation between OSC, the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit Systems Protection Board on communication and identifying the overlapping areas between the agencies would foster a better environment for feds.
She also said working with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on education about prohibited personnel actions would be a step in the right direction.
“I would like there to be a more informal back and forth and I am happy to communicate with the staff, I am happy to communicate directly with the members of this committee in any forum or in any way that you believe would be appropriate,” Lerner said.
The committee plans to vote on Lerner’s nomination to the Senate at their business meeting March 16.
OSC has not had a permanent special counsel head since 2008 when then-Director