Whistleblowing was the subject of an event hosted by the Advisory Committee on Transparency in July 2011. The discussion focused on reforming current law and finding ways to encourage and protect federal whistleblowers. In the end there was consensus that federal whistleblower protections must be strengthened, whistleblowing must be encouraged, and government must change the way that it handles reports of fraud and abuse. Whistleblowers serve an important role in protecting worker safety, improving government efficiency, and saving taxpayer money.
Carolyn Lerner, the recently confirmed head of the Office of Special Counsel, led off the discussion, describing OSC as providing a safe channel for federal government employees to report waste. Before Lerner’s confirmation the OSC had gone through turbulent times and been without Senate-confirmed leadership for two and a half years. Lerner made clear that her goal was to bring the OSC back into good standing. She stressed that employees are the best way to identify waste and fraud and save the government money and time, and encouraged Congress to pass a strong whistleblower protection law.
The next speaker was Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight. She stressed that a serious discussion about government waste requires talking about making whistleblowing work. She suggested financial incentives as a way to make whistleblowing more appealing, using the False Claims Act as an example. The act allows citizens to file a claim when they know the government is being “ripped off” and has helped the government save around $22 billion since 1987. Canterbury concluded by noting that Congress has taken important steps to protect whistleblowers in the private sector; the same must be done for their federal counterparts.
Christian Sanchez, a federal whistleblower and the third panelist, made very clear that many federal whistleblowers face reprisals at work and the potential for prosecution. Sanchez, an agent with Customs Border Protection, never thought he would be a whistleblower. But he spoke up when his station, located in a low incident area along the northern border, expanded even though there was not enough work to go around. Retaliation included interrogation, harassment at work and home, and loss of duties.
The final panelist was Micah Sifry, a senior technology adviser to Sunlight Foundation, who underlined calls for robust funding of whistleblower protections and agencies dedicated to rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse. His remarks focused on ways that the internet and social media are changing how information is shared, revealed, and used. He argued that governments need to accept that there are many things they will no longer be able to hide. We are entering an age of mass participation that will see more citizen oversight of government. Government, Sifry argued, should be focused on embracing this new way of life instead of resisting it.
The event was moderated by Daniel Schuman, Director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency, and emphasized the importance of federal whistleblowers and ways to promote a more robust whistleblowing culture.
Thank you to Policy Fellow Matt Rumsey for writing this summary of the event.
View video of the event below.