US MSPB Releases Comparative Study on Federal Employee Attitudes Toward Whistleblowing
November 16, 2011 - Comments Off
The United States Merit Systems Protection Board (“MSPB”) released a report today entitled “Blowing the Whistle: Barriers to Federal Employees Making Disclosures.” In it, the MSPB compared two surveys of how federal employees felt about whistleblowing – one conducted in 1992 which surveyed over 13,000 federal employees, and one conducted in 2010 which surveyed over 40,000 federal employees. The MSPB used this data to draw some important conclusions about policy and climate changes federal agencies can make to encourage and support whistleblowers.
The survey unearthed some encouraging data. Between 1992 and 2010, the percentage of employees who perceive any wrongdoing has decreased. Respondents were also more likely to report wrongdoing; less likely to be identified as the source of the report; and less likely to perceive a negative consequence for making the report. Also, the most important factor for employees when deciding whether to report wrongdoing was not fear of reprisal, but whether or not their action would save lives.
However, there were negative signs as well. In both 1992 and 2010, about one-third of employees who indicated they had been identified as a source of a report perceived either acts or threats of reprisal. Additionally, while those numbers using the term “retaliation” remained steady, there were some dramatic increases when employees were asked about specific forms of retaliation (e.g., employees perceived termination as a result of reporting wrongdoing nine times as often in 2010 as employees did in 1992). The number of employees having received training about whistleblowing are also still disappointingly low, given that laws have been passed mandating such training. Along those same lines, while gains were made in many areas, the gains were smaller than whistleblower advocates would hope for – for instance, the fact that the percentage of respondents who saw wrongdoing and did not report it dropped from 40 percent to 35 percent is encouraging, but it is still a disappointingly large number.
With its report, the MSPB also released a number of recommendations to government agencies to better train their employees. The MSPB recommended that agencies create cultures in which employees believe that supervisors and managers want to be told about wrongdoing, and, importantly, that it is acceptable to bring forward any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, without requiring absolute proof. When respondents were asked if a particular concern would affect their decision to report, 74 percent stated that concerns over having sufficient proof would affect their decision to come forward. Over 50 percent stated that concerns over the wrongdoing “not being serious enough,” or not giving rise to some necessary level of danger, would affect their decision to report. The MSPB concludes by encouraging “all of those in a position of influence to set the tone that reporting wrongdoing is a public service and a public duty and that retaliation against whistleblowers will not be tolerated.”