Truth-Telling in Government

A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees, Contractors, and Grantees

By Government Accountability Project


Truth-Telling in Government

The job of government to serve the public’s interests depends on the commitment and effort of millions of federal employees, contractors, and grantees around the world. Those same workers are in the best position to learn when decisions and actions deviate from the core mission and responsibilities of government, be it through corruption, failing to comply with laws and regulations, wasting taxpayer money, or jeopardizing public health and safety.

Whistleblowers are employees who use free speech rights to challenge abuses of power that betray the public trust. Whistleblowers have exposed problems across every issue of public concern: dangerous food, water and pharmaceuticals; banking fraud; illegal electronic surveillance; immigration policies and practices that knowingly harm children; censorship of climate science information; risks of nuclear contamination; unsafe airplanes; foreign interference in our elections; and flawed responses to the coronavirus outbreak.

As concern about corruption, wrongdoing, and abuses in government increases, so does our dependence on employees’ willingness to speak up as a mechanism to promote accountability.

Ethical employees are the most powerful mechanism for promoting accountability, averting or mitigating tragedy, and protecting the health of democracy itself by fueling our system of checks and balances—Congress, the courts, the executive branch, the press, and an active civil society—through the power of information.

But even though most employees who choose to speak out feel compelled by an ethical and professional duty to do so, it is a choice fraught with risk.

The now-infamous “Ukraine whistleblower” graphically demonstrated both the power and risk of blowing the whistle. This CIA employee reported though existing legal channels that President Trump sought to pressure the President of Ukraine to announce an investigation into a political rival. That information catalyzed a Congressional investigation, which then compelled other civil servants to testify as witnesses in the ensuing hearing that resulted in the impeachment of the President: the whistleblower’s disclosures, supported by other employee truth-tellers, turned the gears of our democratic system of checks and balances.

But the more significant the disclosures’ impact, the more retaliation increases both in scope and intensity. This whistleblower, largely recognized as a patriot for exercising their duty of loyalty as a federal employee to the Constitution and the rule of law, has also faced relentless threats to their safety in reprisal for disclosing corruption at the highest level. Even the whistleblower’s lawyers are facing death threats. Long-standing public servants who testified before Congress validating the whistleblower’s initial disclosures were publicly disparaged by the President and his supporters and suffered retaliatory transfers for telling the truth.

While this may be an unusual case study, it puts in high relief the potential risk involved with blowing the whistle.

Many who remain in government service have become silent observers, enduring affronts to institutional integrity while censoring themselves, because of fear of reprisal or fear of futility—cynicism that speaking out won’t make a difference.[1] Those fears have never been more legitimate.

Others, however, use different strategies to fulfill their duty as public servants and protect the public trust. Some employees question their superiors in constructive ways as problem solvers, and are able to effect positive change from within their organizations. Some keep careful records, documenting concerns about activities that compromise an agency’s public interest mission. Some in government service choose to exit, yet do so revealing and decrying the abuses they witnessed on the job.

Then there are the courageous employees who decide to blow the whistle on illegality and other serious wrongdoing while remaining in their workplace. They may do this by giving information to managers they believe might respond with integrity, to an agency Inspector General, to a member of Congress, or to a journalist or advocacy group.

And indeed, not all whistleblowers’ experiences follow the narrative arc of making a significant disclosure only to suffer terrible retaliation. Some employees are able to make disclosures and effectively preempt reprisal through campaigns that marshal legal rights, media coverage, congressional action, and public support for their whistleblowing. Others who do suffer reprisal often achieve vindication both in judicial court and in the court of public opinion. And many see the problems they disclosed addressed—which is what motivated them to blow the whistle in the first place—through public pressure, court verdicts, regulatory reforms, and executive agency course correction.

Whistleblowers are often the best, and sometimes the only, path toward holding government institutions accountable, ensuring regulatory compliance, and protecting the public’s interests. Even in the most factious periods of Congress, whistleblower protection is a policy issue that has historically garnered unanimous, bipartisan support, because fighting waste, fraud and abuse is a non-partisan concern. Whistleblowers themselves cross the political spectrum, yet all share one thing in common: a professional, ethical and/or legal duty to report evidence of serious betrayals of public trust through abuses of power, propelled by hope that speaking up will make a difference or by belief that their silence would feel like complicity. This guide is for them, and for all of us who benefit from their acts of conscience.

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[1] Research consistently identifies fear of retaliation and cynicism as the dominant reasons employees stay silent despite witnessing wrongdoing. See, e.g., E.W. Morrison, “Employee Voice and Silence,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, Vol. 1 (2016): 173-197; David Mayer, et al, “Encouraging employees to report unethical conduct internally: it takes a village,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 121 (2013):89-103.