This Time, POGO Got It Wrong

Ethical Advocate (EA) typically finds itself on the same side of the fence as the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). In a particularly important area, we share similar values in protecting the rights of whistleblowers and giving them the best opportunity to report that which needs to see the light of day and to do so without retaliation or termination. But, there is an important area where we must take exception to POGO’s stance and perception.

On March 20, 2009, POGO released part two of its investigation into the federal Inspector General (IG) system. Written by Beverly Lumpkin (who left POGO to work at the DOJ), the Report examines “how to hold IG’s accountable” and “focusing oversight internally versus externally.”

While EA does not make comment on most of the Report, we strongly disagree with the methodology and conclusions concerning the use of hotlines by Federal Agency IG departments. The Report investigated the functioning of one hotline vendor used by two Federal agencies, and in criticizing the vendor for its perceived shortcomings, implied that all hotline vendors function with the same shortcomings and as such, erroneously made a de facto condemnation of all hotline services and dismissed them as inadequate.

POGO’s conclusion, based upon this one vendor, was that federal agencies should not use vendors for its hotlines. It is the equivalent of recommending that people should stop driving all cars because of the report finding Pinto’s were unsafe.

Let’s look at the blanket mis-perceptions stated in the report. All quotes are from the reports and the responses in bold address how other services work or point to the fallacy of the perception.

“Outsourcing the whistleblower hotline… removes the IG’s ability to have any supervision of the hotline operators or quality control of their work.” A good hotline works closely with its government clients to ensure all aspects of the service are meeting requirements and can adjust to changing needs or quality of work. Real time reports measure service levels, handle times, and staff availability. Each month or upon request, reports can be generated based on the above metrics and other information to provide management and process improvement support.

“There is no guarantee that the new company is as careful in training its employees.” There is no guarantee that any company or federal agency is careful in training its employees. The true test is to evaluate a company on its merits and the experience of the people and customers it serves.

“The hotline operators” are “local college students.” While this may be true of the vendor investigated, it is not true of every vendor. EA’s phone agents are professionals with most being certified as CIRS (Certified Information & Referral Specialists). Agent turnover is negligible with a current average of 5.8 years tenure.

“When one dials the Hotline number for the DHS OIG, there may be a long wait before the call is answered. Then the caller is treated to a five minute recording directing one to other numbers for information about FEMA or illegal immigration.” It is unfortunate to use that as an example again, implying that this is true for all. Over 80% of EA’s calls have average speed to answer of 20 seconds. There is a 40 second introductory recorded (multi-lingual) announcement, customized to each client, telling them to call 911 if it is an emergency and otherwise welcoming their stakeholders and employees to use the service and assuring them they will remain anonymous if that is what they choose.

“The operator then asks the caller for contact important information, but if the caller wants to remain anonymous, there is no way for any DHS official to follow up on the lead.” With a technically sound system, there are mechanisms built in allowing whistleblowers and investigators to communicate with each other while whistleblowers remain anonymous.

“If anonymous callers ever call back to find out what happened to their complaints, they are informed that they can file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department.” Unless this is an Agency request, it is the exact opposite of what a good system should do. Whistleblowers should be encouraged to call back and find out (what is legally permissible) with respect to the reported incident and be able to provide more detail.

“POGO is troubled by the outsourcing of what should be an inherently governmental function.” Why should it be an inherently governmental function? Over 70% of Fortune 1000 companies outsource their hotline service. Why? Because they understand that the person gathering the initial information does not need to be an expert on the particular organization; the investigator needs to be the expert. The hotline operator needs sensitivity and to be good at eliciting information from the whistleblower using a comprehensive system with features that an internal service cannot provide, including:

* 24/7/365 coverage. Over 48% of all industry hotline reports are initiated after hours and on weekends
* Language translation capability
* Guaranteed anonymity
* Unlimited and customized reporting categories to address the agency’s unique risk factors
* Controls which prevent investigators from viewing or being assigned reports which implicate them
* A comprehensive case management system for the agency to stay on top of all incidents, with multiple levels of authorized access, archiving ability, and tools to review the status.
* A self-generative, extremely robust reporting and analytical capability, to create detailed reports for compliance monitoring and agency-wide risk assessment
* No suppression: the service should have a built in mechanism where incidents involving senior management are automatically and directly submitted to designated people without filtering by any personnel

“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if the whistleblower wishes to remain anonymous, there must be a way for the investigator charged with looking into the disclosure to hear back from the whistleblower so that the investigator can ask follow-up questions. It is a system that is designed to fail if the whistleblower cannot somehow help inform the investigator during his or her work.” We concur. In a good system, the whistleblower can phone a toll free number, give the operator their user name and password and ask the operator to see if there are any comments or questions left for them on the whistleblower’s incident reporting site (with a system that includes web based reporting, the whistleblower can go to the web portal themselves to see and/or leave additional information). Such a system gives the administrator and reporter the ability to correspond anonymously on an on-going basis.

Ethical Advocate does not doubt the accuracy of the POGO investigation. Our concern is with the resulting interpretations based on evaluating one vendor as a one size fits all analysis of the hotline industry. Our concern is that POGO published the report without realizing they were condemning an industry based upon investigating one provider.

If POGO claims the report was about IG’s and not hotlines, then it should not have issued a de facto condemnation of all hotline services. To determine whether an internal IG hotline is the best way to delivery this capability, it would have been considerably more effective if POGO had identified the components of an excellent hotline service, and then done a side-by-side comparison of the vendor, other qualified vendors, and an agency’s internally provided hotline.