Whistleblower Protection:

VA Did Little Until Recently to Inform Employees About Their Rights

GGD-00-70: Published: Apr 14, 2000. Publicly Released: May 17, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) whistleblower protection, focusing on the: (1) actions VA has taken since October 29, 1994--the enactment of the 1994 Whistleblower Protection Act amendments--to inform its employees about their rights to protection against reprisal when reporting misconduct; (2) extent to which VA employees are aware of their rights to such protection; (3) extent to which VA employees are willing to report misconduct in VA operations, should they become aware of it; and (4) number and disposition of whistleblower reprisal complaints filed by VA employees with agencies responsible for providing whistleblower protection.

GAO noted that: (1) the 1994 amendments to the Whistleblower Protection Act require federal agencies to inform employees about their protection rights and to consult with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) in developing an educational approach; (2) from the enactment of the 1994 Whistleblower Protection Act amendments until March 1999, VA headquarters did little to inform its employees about their rights to protection against reprisal when reporting misconduct; (3) in March 1999, the Secretary of VA sent a memorandum to all employees stating that whistleblower reprisal would not be tolerated, describing how employees could seek relief within VA if they believed they had been reprised against, and listing agencies in addition to VA they could contact concerning reprisal; (4) in March 1999, a review team was charged with identifying ways to inform VA employees about their rights and supervisors about their responsibilities concerning whistleblowing; (5) some of the team's recommendations have been implemented; (6) VA has not indicated whether it plans to measure the effectiveness of methods of informing employees of their rights; (7) since March 1999, VA has consulted with OSC in developing an educational approach on whistleblower protection, as required by the Whistleblower Protection Act; (8) despite VA's actions, GAO's survey results indicate that the majority of VA employees had limited, or no, knowledge about their rights to whistleblower protection; (9) on their willingness to report misconduct, 83 percent of VA employees supported from a great to very great extent the idea that VA employees should report misconduct, but a smaller number, about 50 percent, would be either generally or very willing to report it if they became aware of misconduct; (10) GAO's survey results concerning the willingness of VA employees to report misconduct indicate that a fear of reprisal in the existing organizational culture could deter VA employees from coming forth with allegations of misconduct; (11) VA did not know the extent or outcomes of all VA whistleblower reprisal complaints filed within VA or with other agencies; (12) in addition, VA officials from the offices of Human Resources and the VA Inspector General said that they also did not know what actions VA took against VA managers when reprisal occurred; and (13) data on complaints and outcomes could be used to determine what actions VA could take to better ensure that its policy of no tolerance for reprisal is followed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: VA's Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration has established a number of intended actions to inform VA employees on a periodic basis of their whistleblower rights. VA has implemented all of the intended actions. The last action, issuing the employee handbook which addresses whistleblower rights, was issued in February 2002. However, VA is still in the process of determining how it will measure the effectiveness of such actions.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should establish a long-term plan of intended actions with target dates for: (1) informing on a periodic basis all employees of their whistleblower rights; and (2) measuring the effectiveness of such actions, such as with a periodic survey of employees.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2003, VA's Acting Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration signed a memo stating that VA's Office of Human Resources Management (OHRM) implemented a database for tracking overall whistleblower complaints and collected information from VA organizational components and the MSPB database. The information in the OHRM database concerns the number of findings and the redress provided, and is intended to help monitor whistleblower activity.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should design and implement a system for tracking overall whistleblower complaints; complaints for which reprisal was determined or the complaint was settled; and what actions, if any, VA took against VA managers when reprisal was found to have occurred.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2003, VA's Acting Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration signed a memo stating that VA's Office of Human Resources Management implemented a database for tracking overall whistleblower complaints and collected information from VA organizational components and the MSPB database. The memo provided an analysis of the status of complaints filed over the 3-year period 1998 through 2001.

    Recommendation: VA should analyze these data periodically to ascertain whether additional steps are needed to ensure that reprisal is not tolerated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

 

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