In a meeting years ago, a manager was relating why a costly Federal project had failed. At the end, he summed it up with, “You don’t undertake a vast project with half-vast ideas”. Well, the secretary doing the transcribing got the “vast” part correctly in her notes but the “half-vast” became an expletive that actually fit the whole situation better. Recently, this event came to mind when local media reported on how the new DCSS “whistleblower” program will be structured—indeed half-vast.
Back in the day, as an auditor and investigator, I worked with those who blew the whistle and saw what happened after it was blown—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Done right, the process identifies what goes wrong and, if corrected, may save taxpayers money. Done wrong, it leads to little of tangible benefit and in the process may harm those who try to correct what they perceive as improper things.
Reportedly, the DCSS developed a complaint form requiring identification of the submitter. However, without an anonymity option, it isn’t likely to work—been there, done that. Although some may sign self-serving complaints, like “Elmer and Jamal got promoted when I was more qualified”, lack of anonymity will not produce “quality” complaints of potential wrongdoing or problems really needing attention—more than personal problems. I could provide a lot of examples of what happens after a complaint is made but one really stands out in my mind.
At a military base, an anonymous complaint was made that activities, such as the golf course, were being supported in a manner that violated a Congressional mandate. It was verbally made on a phone recorder in the local “hotline” system by an unidentified male military member. As an investigator, I was called to the office of the Chief of Staff who railed on about the “coward” making a complaint against his golf course and “not having the guts to give his name”.
So, what was the very next statement out of his mouth? Well, let’s just say if he could find the guy, it involved a knife and making another gelding for the pasture—without doubt a career would have ended that day. And let’s just say this is not an exception where identification of the anonymous was desired and leave it at that.
Over the years, there were plenty of “searches” for those who dare complain. It seems management doesn’t like criticism and doesn’t forget where it comes from. So, if there is no option for anonymity, the whistle won’t be blown very much or it will be feeble blows worth little.
With all due respect, having all complaints go directly to, and only to, Dr Murfree, who will also be the investigator, sounds like something right out of the script for “Dumb and Dumber”. And this system is expected to produce credible results? I would compare this to Bernie Madoff investigating his own ponzi scheme, Snuffy Smith looking for Col Sander’s missing chickens, and Dick Nixon searching for the missing audio tapes.
Now if this isn’t a half-vast idea I never heard one. Good grief! Isn’t this essentially what happened before the CRCT debacle came to light—a complaint was made to the prior Super that things weren’t right in Denmark? If Dr Murfree had a part in making a decision resulting in, say, a loss of money, could the BOE believe the results of his investigation—if they ever even knew of it?
If the DCSS can do without the services of Dr Murfree while he personally investigates complaints, bear in mind some of these may be complicated, should we be paying him such a whopping big salary? And what in the world does he know about how to properly investigate anything—like the “missing” lunch money of years ago or other matters outside his field of experience and training?
Putting pithy comments and sarcasm aside, I don’t doubt that the DCSS/BOE feels it’s dealing with an important but thorny matter in a reasonable manner. After all, it should champion trying to do the right things to make the system more efficient, effective, and economical. But this won’t work, so let’s do things that will lead to those objectives.
The anonymity option is a must or the process is DOA at the starting gate. Complaints should go directly to the BOE who appoints an investigator to be given unfettered access to records and people and reports back only to the BOE. Let it be policy that reprisals against those who submit complaints will be harshly dealt with, including dismissal if warranted.
The BOE and the DCSS in general have little to no credibility with the general public. Thinking otherwise is foolish these days. So please, if you can’t do it right, just don’t do it at all—public tolerance for doing more “half-vast” efforts is at an all time low.
Robert Rehberg is a retired auditor with the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.