To help ensure fairness in federal employment and personnel practices, the Office of Special Counsel reviews complaints from federal employees and applicants. In light of the agency's growing backlog of prohibited personnel practices and whistleblower disclosure cases, we looked at its case review processes.
We found several areas for improvement, including:
inconsistent staff training
unclear guidance for reviewing cases
OSC's lack of an independent review process for cases brought against it
We made a number of recommendations that could help improve OSC’s case management.
The median number of days to close all prohibited personnel practice and whistleblower disclosure cases, fiscal years 2011 to 2016
Line graph showing PPP cases took 97 days to close (up from 82); whistleblower disclosure cases took 29 days (up from 10)
What GAO Found
Between fiscal years 2011 and 2016, the number of prohibited personnel practice (PPP) and whistleblower disclosure cases the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) received from employees of other federal agencies increased by 66 percent. Although the number of cases OSC closed increased by 62 percent during this period, the pace at which cases were closed did not keep pace with the number of cases received. As a result, the backlog also grew. OSC closed the vast majority of cases it received for various reasons, including a lack of sufficient evidence or lack of OSC jurisdiction.
Trends in PPP and Whistleblower Disclosure Cases, Fiscal Years 2011 to 2016
OSC's processing time increased for both types of cases from fiscal year 2011 to 2016, but the time for processing whistleblower disclosure cases experienced a significantly greater increase, from a median of 10 days to 29 days. Because processing times for whistleblower disclosures include the time that agencies take to conduct investigations and respond to OSC, they can be significant, especially if an agency requests an extension from OSC for additional time. GAO found that in fiscal year 2016, OSC approved on average 2.7 extensions per whistleblower referral, and that the average time to process these cases was 1.8 years. However, OSC does not provide whistleblowers specific information on timelines for agency responses to OSC referrals; as a result these individuals may not know how long the process could potentially take.
OSC's process for reviewing and referring allegations submitted by its own employees includes the involvement of officials and staff. This involvement was identified as a key concern by OSC employees. Specifically, 17 of the 87 OSC employees who responded to GAO's survey reported that they considered filing internal allegations against another OSC employee but chose not to do so in part because they feared losing anonymity, feared management reprisal, or were uncertain how to file an internal OSC complaint. Congress recently enacted statutory changes to provide additional safeguards to OSC employees who file internal complaints, including establishing an agreement with an agency inspector general to review internal OSC cases. However, OSC has not yet fully implemented such an agreement.
Why GAO Did This Study
OSC is responsible for safeguarding the merit system in federal employment by protecting employees and applicants, including whistleblowers. Consequently, OSC must ensure its case processes are adequate to protect the federal workforce, including its own employees.
GAO was asked to review OSC case processes and procedures for whistleblower disclosures and PPPs. For both types of cases, this report among other things (1) examines trends in cases received and closed from fiscal year 2011 to 2016, (2) examines timeliness of cases closed from fiscal year 2011 to 2016, and (3) assesses the extent to which safeguards are in place for OSC employees who make allegations.
GAO reviewed OSC case guidance, processes, controls, and the latest available OSC data from fiscal year 2016. GAO also assessed whether OSC's processes adhered to Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government; and surveyed and interviewed OSC employees.
GAO is making seven recommendations, including that OSC communicate timelines to whistleblowers and finalize a time frame for obtaining an independent internal review process for OSC employees. OSC agreed with GAO's recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Office of Special Counsel||The Special Counsel should review and revise as appropriate, its policy for agency extension requests. (Recommendation 1)|
|Office of Special Counsel||The Special Counsel should communicate expected processing timelines to whistleblowers. (Recommendation 2)|
|Office of Special Counsel||The Special Counsel should develop, document, and implement case processing procedures for OSC's Complaints Examining Unit, including procedures for how cases are prioritized, how to take favorable actions, how to balance obtaining favorable actions with meeting staff productivity expectations, and how cases should be reviewed by supervisors. (Recommendation 3)|
|Office of Special Counsel||The Special Counsel should identify and implement additional controls and tools needed to ensure closed case files can be tracked and located efficiently. (Recommendation 4)|
|Office of Special Counsel||The Special Counsel should develop, document, and implement a standardized training program for entry-level employees, across units. (Recommendation 5)|
|Office of Special Counsel||The Special Counsel should finalize a time frame for completing work with the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency and agency Inspectors General to obtain a fully independent review process for internal OSC allegations. (Recommendation 6)|
|Office of Special Counsel||The Special Counsel should increase and clarify ongoing outreach to OSC employees regarding OSC's process for handling internal PPP claims or whistleblower disclosure allegations. (Recommendation 7)|