U.S. Office of Special Counsel:
Strategy for Reducing Persistent Backlog of Cases Should Be Provided to Congress
GAO-04-36: Published: Mar 8, 2004. Publicly Released: Apr 7, 2004.
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The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has not been consistently processing cases within statutory time limits, creating backlogs. Because the backlogs are of concern to the Congress, this report provides information on how many cases were processed within statutory time limits, the actions taken by OSC to address case processing delays and backlog, and the agency's perspective on the adequacy of its resources and our analysis of this perspective.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) met the 240-day statutory time limit for processing prohibited personnel practice cases about 77 percent of the time from fiscal year 1997 through 2003 and met the 15-day limit for processing whistleblower disclosure cases about 26 percent of the time. OSC took an average of more than six months to process a whistleblower disclosure case. Over the seven-year period, 34 percent of the prohibited personnel practices cases were backlogged as were 96 percent of the whistleblower disclosure cases. In an attempt to address workload issues, in 2001 OSC streamlined processes and hired additional staff. OSC data indicate that the merger of the agency's investigators and attorneys into a single unit increased the average number of cases processed per individual from June 2001 to June 2002. A case priority processing system for prohibited personnel practices and whistleblower disclosure cases allowed OSC to process more important cases more expeditiously, according to OSC. OSC officials told us that the primary reason the agency has not been more successful in meeting the statutory time limits for its cases, particularly those involving whistleblower disclosure, is lack of an adequate number of staff. Our analysis of OSC data indicates, however, that even with increased staffing, the agency was not able to process a significantly larger number of cases within the time limits. OSC noted that staff turnover and the need to train new staff lowered its productivity. Officials also noted the difficulty in meeting the 15-day limit for processing whistleblower disclosure cases, but have not proposed an alternative time limit. In external documents to Congress, OSC has discussed its case processing and backlog difficulties, but has not developed a comprehensive strategy for dealing with them. Presenting such a strategy would provide Congress with information that it needs for oversight and resource allocation.
Recommendation for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In a June 14, 2007, letter updating the status of several recommendations, OSC's Deputy Special Counsel stated that the May 17, 2005, letter from the Special Counsel to the Comptroller General should be considered the detailed strategy that OSC was required to submit under the recommendation. In hearings in March 2007, OSC stated that it had provided the strategy (the May 2005 letter) to the Congress at an oversight hearing in 2005. The May 2005 letter explained the changes made or being made in the 3 operational units and 1 investigative unit and also noted the progress in the actual reduction of the backlogs in these units. According to the June 2007 letter, since May 2005, OSC has made additional changes to its case processing procedures. To facilitate in better handling of case processing, 3 of the 4 units either developed or revised and adopted Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the purposes of working through the backlog and helping to ensure efficient operations. In addition to the SOPs, the Investigation and Prosecution Division (IPD) created an Investigation Manual, which is currently in draft form, with help from the 4 field offices. Likewise, the Hatch Act Unit (HAU) and the Disclosure Unit (DU) have new operating procedures. Further, since May 2005, the HAU hired 2 FTEs to help with the higher volume of cases. In addition, several employees were detailed into the unit for several months to assist with cases and to add to the agency's pool of attorneys with the skills to be able to perform Hatch Act investigations. The DU's SOPs are used as a basic training manual for new attorneys, according to OSC. OSC also indicated that the DU has met the statutory deadline to make a "substantial likelihood" determination within 15 days of a receipt of a whistleblower case in just over 50 percent of its cases. Because this deadline is so often unmet, according to OSC, the DU has asked that OSC seek to have the statute amended to provide for a 45-day deadline, which is more in line with the actual case resolution rates for less complex, routine matters. OSC's Complaints Examining Unit (CEU) implemented changes (e.g. shorter memos; raising morale through promotions, details, and reassignment; and ensuring that most complaints are filed using the OSC Form 11) that were addressed in the May 2005 letter to GAO. As for additional actions planned related to case processing, OSC indicated that all units plan to follow through with actions underway, including filling vacancies, and that the CEU has proposed an initiative to develop an online interactive complaint filing method (for the Form 11) where screens guide the filer through the form by requesting the required information.
Recommendation: The Special Counsel should provide Congress with a detailed strategy designed to allow more consistent processing of cases within statutory time limits and a reduction in the backlog of cases for which these limits have already passed.
Agency Affected: Office of Special Counsel