A VA office created by a 2017 law with the goals of serving as a channel for whistleblowers to make disclosures and protecting them from retaliation has “ acted in ways that were inconsistent with its statutory authority while it simultaneously floundered in its mission,” an IG report has said.
The Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection—like many of the other special personnel authorities enacted for the VA in light of years of scandals there—has been seen as a potential model for use in other agencies. However, the report and a subsequent House hearing has undercut any such momentum and has raised suggestions that the office instead should be abolished.
The IG found that the office “misconstrued its statutory investigative mandate both by accepting matters that it should not have and declining matters the act requires it to investigate” and failed to refer to “other more appropriate investigative entities” cases involving issues such as potential employment discrimination or criminal conduct.
The investigations it did conduct were not consistently “procedurally sound, accurate, thorough, and unbiased,” in part because most employees in the investigative division had a background in HR, not investigations, the IG said. Further, the office actually left employees who made disclosures to it more vulnerable to retaliation because it “did not take sufficient steps to protect complainants’ identities and prevent their concerns from being sent to the very facilities or network offices where the complainant worked or that were the subject of the allegations.”
Another responsibility of the office involves recommending discipline based on its investigation of allegations of misconduct, poor performance, and retaliation by certain senior executives. However, the IG found that officials responsible for making those decisions “had insufficient direction for how to determine the appropriate level of discipline that would ensure consistency and fairness.”
Agency management said it has taken steps since the IG did its work to comply with nine of the report’s 22 recommendations and has plans in progress for the rest. The IG, though, said that some of the planned actions “lacked sufficient clarity or specific steps to ensure corrective actions will adequately address the recommendations.”