Whistle-Blowing Is Still Dangerous to Whistlers

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

April 14, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- One of the cheerier delusions of good government is that big federal departments can be forced to tolerate in their ranks those righteous, pesky people known as whistle-blowers. Might as well expect them to welcome their worst enemies to their most secret connivings.

That's the lesson to be had from a congressional study of how government agencies have responded to the Whistle-blower Protection Act of 1989, a law designed to protect federal employees who expose wrong-doing on the job.

The study, by the watchdog General Accounting Office (GAO), found that few agencies had established the internal operating procedures required by the law or bothered to advise employees of their whistle-blowing rights. No one should be surprised by those failings. No organization wants to encourage whistle-blowing.

The 1989 law, designed to beef up earlier statutes on whistle-blowing, established an Office of Special Counsel as an independent agency to protect federal employees, particularly whistle-blowers, against vengeful bosses.

But the GAO reported that the officials of the Office of Special Counsel "acknowledged that they have had limited success in eliciting agency support for informing employees about their rights under the law and how to go about exercising them."

Only two agencies of 19 surveyed by the GAO went to any lengths to educate their employees about the 1989 law, and those two -- un-named, like others in the report -- accounted for only 77,000 employees. Two others, with a total of 1.1 million employees, "said they did not inform their employees about the statutes," according to the GAO. Another 15 agencies informed selected employees, such as legal staff, of whistle-blowing regulations.

The GAO notes that one agency reported that whistle-blower information was contained in a handbook for new employees. "However," the GAO report states, "we noted that the latest edition of the handbook was dated 1988 -- before the Whistle-blower Protection Act of 1989."

In actual practice, whistle-blowing tends to be difficult and grim for its practitioners, especially in today's skimpy job market. Mavericks may thrive in fiction, but rarely so in the day-to-day rigors of organizational life.

One reason is that whistle-blowing usually involves the uneven match of a lone individual against an organization with ample resources. And anyone who goes against the organizational tide is likely to be treated as a trouble-maker with questionable motives and unseemly personal characteristics.

Many who have successfully come through the fire of whistle-blowing have said that they wouldn't have done it if they had known before-hand what was involved.

The GAO report doesn't delve into the perils of whistle-blowing. But, as a practical matter, anyone contemplating the plunge would be well advised to seek outside support, particularly from a member of Congress.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) relies heavily on whistle-blowers in his role as chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which he also chairs.

Mr. Dingell, one of the most feared and powerful figures on Capitol Hill, has used information provided by whistle-blowers to expose major wrongdoing in defense contracting, scientific research, health care and other areas.

At hearings, Rep. Dingell routinely assures the agency chiefs in his cross hairs that he takes a personal and enduring interest in the well-being of good citizens who provide him with information of misdeeds.

The Whistle-blower Protection Act is well-intended and potentially useful. But a basic condition of the bureaucratic jungle is enmity between organizations and whistle-blowers. No law can compel the senior managers of an organization to tolerate the gaze of a subordinate whose legitimate complaints might cost them their jobs or even send them to jail.

Whistle-blowing is dangerous, especially for the whistle-blowers. They should make use of the laws designed to protect them, and then muster all the friends they can find.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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