On Wednesday, the Department of Justice Inspector General announced the creation of a new whistleblower ombudsman position -- and we think it’s a great idea. Although whistleblowers are on the front lines in the fight against government waste, fraud, and abuse, they aren’t always valued in the process of standing up for what’s right. (Just check out this recent clip from The Daily Show featuring whistleblower Thomas Drake’s story for evidence.)
Establishing this ombudsman position at Justice will make it easier for would-be whistleblowers to feel safe in coming forward and better ensure that when they do take that risk to tell the truth, their voices are actually heard.
The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, or WPEA (S. 743, H.R. 3289) (which the Project On Government Oversight strongly supports), would require each inspector general to designate a whistleblower protection ombudsman. While we continue to wait for the House of Representatives to pass this important legislation (the Senate passed S.743 with unanimous consent in May), the Justice Department's inspector general's actions serve as an important reminder to other inspectors general that they can proactively designate their own whistleblower protection ombudsmen.
Under the WPEA, the ombudsman’s role would be to educate and communicate with whistleblowers about their rights. The Department of Justice's whistleblower ombudsman will do just that. He or she will help whistleblowers make protected disclosures and monitor investigations of retaliation claims. The ombudsman will also see to it that whistleblower complaints are handled promptly and that cases don’t fall through the cracks.
In addition to assisting whistleblowers, the ombudsman will also serve in an advisory role as counsel to the inspector general. He or she will train Department of Justice employees on how whistleblowers improve operations at the agency and educate supervisors of the consequences of taking illegal retaliation actions. Finally, the whistleblower ombudsman will act as the inspector general's liaison to other government agencies with jurisdiction over whistleblowers and to civil society advocacy groups.
In our 2009 report “Inspectors General: Accountability is a Balancing Act,” POGO found that although Congress believes inspectors general are diligently investigating whistleblower disclosures and aggressively protecting them from retaliation, in the vast majority of cases inspector generals are failing to do so.
We recommended that all inspectors general rededicate their offices to the importance of whistleblowers. Effectively handling whistleblower complaints means having a well-trained and experienced unit dedicated to conducting thoughtful examinations of disclosures made and of any allegations of retaliation. In creating the position of whistleblower ombudsman, the Department of Justice inspector general is on the right track.
Dan Meyer, director of Whistleblowing and Transparency at the Department of Defense's inspector general’s office made this comment regarding Justice's new position:
Beginning with the Department of Interior a decade ago, ombuds offices have been created and tailored to the mission of each Executive branch agency seeking to execute the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, as amended. Inspectors general sit at the perfect crossroads within which to locate this mission, and it is great news that Justice is now joining the ranks of Interior, Defense, Commerce, Homeland Security and the other programs established thus far. We look forward to not only close cooperation with our new peer in the support and deconfliction of cases, but also in furthering whistleblowing policy discourse and exploring how we all protect the sources that make our investigations, audits, evaluations and inspections possible.
We will be watching with great interest to see how the new Department of Justice whistleblower ombudsman takes up the mantle of these responsibilities in the coming months. We hope that the ombudsman position will be independent and free from potential conflicts in duty. The creation of whistleblower ombudsman is a best practice for a more open and accountable government. POGO hopes that agencies across the federal government will replicate this initiative!
Suzanne Dershowitz is a public policy fellow at the Project On Government Oversight.