Whistleblowing Laws and Culture Need to Change to Save Taxpayer Dollars

08/02/2011 10:23 am ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011


A government culture change around secrecy and whistleblowing is needed in Washington, according to a panel of experts hosted by the Advisory Committee on Transparency.

Whistleblowing "should be a valuable thing. It should help people advance in their careers," said Carolyn Lerner, the newly confirmed head of the Office of Special Counsel (OSC).

While Lerner and the other panel members, including POGO's Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury, agreed that the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act must be passed as a first step, they also argued that a larger change is needed in the attitude towards whistleblowers. Calling out waste, fraud and abuse should be seen as a positive act that strengthens government. Unfortunately, in the current climate, whistleblowers are seen as insubordinates for calling attention to failure, the panelists said.

Canterbury noted that whistleblower protections are taxpayer protections. "As the country is in the middle of the debt ceiling debacle, budget cut talks, and while the economy is in dire straights, we know as least one thing: whistleblowing saves taxpayer dollars," Canterbury said.

Canterbury called the whistleblower protection system "broken" and "antiquated," and said that protections had been eroded by court decisions. She was also critical of the Obama administration's increased prosecution of whistleblowers, saying it has had a chilling effect on people coming forward with information about waste, fraud, and abuse.   

Christian Sanchez, a Border Patrol Agent who recently became a whistleblower after speaking out about getting paid overtime for "spinning our wheels" at an overstaffed border station in Port Angeles, WA, also appeared on the July 29 panel.

He told stories of supervisors spending their entire ten-hour shift playing musical instruments and others kicking their feet up to read a book.

Sanchez became choked up during the panel when he described the retaliation his family experienced after he came forward. He said his mail has been looked through and that people had been watching his house and his movements around town, prompting his young child to ask, "why is he watching us?"

Lerner's office is charged with helping whistleblowers like Sanchez who report a complaint, but Lerner and Canterbury both said the OSC is underfunded. The office is facing a potential $600,000 budget cut to $17.9 million next year -- in spite of an expected increase in thousands of veteran's cases next year. The OSC already receives 4,000 complaints every year and operates three satellite offices around the country.

"If we were serious about saving government money we would be adding to OSC," said Micah Sifry, the author of WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency and a senior technology advisor to The Sunlight Foundation, which hosted the panel.

In addition to the change needed to how whistleblowers are regarded, Sifry argued that there needs to be a culture change around the excessive classification of documents as secret. He pointed to the "absurd" fact that between two and three million people have security clearances.

"We should focus on things that are truly important to keep secret," Sifry said. 

Canterbury outlined the reforms critical for whistleblower and taxpayer protections in pending legislation. This is the same bill that was killed by a red herring raised in the last days of the previous Congress. Canterbury said whistleblowers are still waiting -- some in silence and others facing retaliation without recourse.

"And we as taxpayers also are still waiting for the President and Congress to deliver on their promise for more transparency and accountability," Canterbury said.

Andre Francisco is a POGO Associate.