OSC urging agencies to take ‘first step’ in creating open culture

The Office of Special Counsel is reminding federal agencies of their obligation to create a work environment that encourages trust, transparency and a safe place for whistleblowers.

In a Feb. 3 reminder letter to more than 100 agencies, Carolyn Lerner, head of the OSC, urged the individual agencies to register for the OSC’s 2302 (c) Certification Program, which “provides essential information about the thirteen prohibited personnel practices (PPPs) of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA), including whistleblower retaliation.”

“Certification under OSC’s program is an important first step in establishing an open culture where legitimate concerns are addressed,” Lerner said. “OSC’s program also makes good management sense, as the CSRA’s underlying principles represent core best practices for any organization.”

The program was launched under the administration’s December 2013 Second Open Government National Action Plan, which requires program participation and recertification every three years.

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The OSC is an independent watchdog agency that protects federal employees and applicants from unauthorized personnel practices in government.

An OSC spokesman said with the two-year anniversary of the requirement, “We thought it was the right time to remind agencies of this obligation. This program has also been a high priority for the Special Counsel who, last year, incorporated the program under a new unit and unit chief, who has as a primary responsibility ensuring a robust certification program.”

The steps to certification include:

  • Placing informational posters about prohibited personnel practices (PPP) and whistleblower protection laws at agency facilities
  • Providing information about protections under whistleblower protection laws to new employees as part of the orientation process
  • Providing annual notification to current employees about their rights and remedies under whistleblower protection laws
  • Providing PPP training for supervisors
  • Posting a link to OSC’s website on the agency’s website

The OSC also follows rules to maintain its own culture of openness.

“OSC provides all incoming staff with the same information and materials on civil service and whistleblower protection laws that must be provided to other federal employees under OSC’s program,” an OSC spokesman said.

The OSC sent out reminder letters to more than 130 agencies, including cabinet departments, independent agencies, as well as agency components and sub-agencies, according to the OSC.

As of the mailing, 50 agencies or components were certified, while another 18 agencies and components were registered to become certified.

Among the agencies that have completed the certification program are the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Personnel Management, the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General, and the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General.

Some agencies that are registered to become certified are the Homeland Security Department Office of Inspector General, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Treasury.

The OSC offers an online training quiz, as well as employee training for agencies.

“To supplement the quiz, OSC strongly recommends in-person, interactive training, especially for high-level managers and supervisors,” Lerner said in her letter. “Establishing a work environment that encourages whistleblowing begins at the top. I am aware that agencies are increasingly asked to meet new reporting requirements with sometimes limited resources. It is my firm belief that any resources expended in becoming certified under OSC’s program are an investment in good government and can help prevent future wrongdoing.”

The OSC said it’s been a “victim of its own success” in fiscal 2015, thanks to more whistleblowers coming forward from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In her annual performance and accountability report, Lerner cited the agency’s growing case workload as grounds for increased funding from Congress in fiscal 2017.

Lerner said fiscal 2015 marked the second consecutive year in which the OSC saw a double-digit growth in its services. The OSC said whistleblowers coming forward with retaliation claims and complaints about the quality of VA hospital care contributed most to the uptick in cases.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, an attorney with the Federal Practice Group, suggested that some modification to the training could help reduce OSC’s workload.

Pitts-Wiley said he would like to see agencies providing the same information about whistleblower protection laws during orientation for new employees,to existing employees as well.

“That training should be provided to all employees,” Pitts-Wiley said. “The result of that is the elimination of the employer-employee dynamic that can be detrimental and ultimately self-defeating to efficient government. By providing the same information and training to all employees … it would foster an environment where self-policing is encouraged because employees are arguably the best stewards of every agency.”

More informed employees promote “weeding out of unknowing, illegitimate claims of waste, fraud and abuse. It would instead promote the raising of claims that most certainly deserve the agencies’ attention and possibly the attention of OSC.”

“I think it’s a great initiative,” Pitts-Wiley said. “Many federal employees have considerable rights in the work place, and those rights are virtually unknown or unfamiliar to employees. The OSC initiative is a really good start.”