Uh oh! OSC joins the ranks of agencies with a big backlog

Federal employment rosters, the good-government crowd likes to point out, have remained essentially at levels they reached in the 1960s. A couple of million people somehow manage a lot more work than their numerically similar forebears did a generation or two ago. That makes statistics from the Office of Special Counsel stand out.

In its latest report to Congress, OSC reports receiving a record 5,000 cases in fiscal 2014, up 17 percent from the year earlier — 5,237 “matters,” as OSC calls them.  OSC says it expects 6,000 to come in during 2015. About two-thirds of the cases involved prohibited personnel practices, including whistleblower retaliation.

Are things that bad?

Maybe the whistleblower protection expansion law passed last year is encouraging more people to come forward with what they see as waste, fraud or abuse. If so, it isn’t working out too well.

I took a closer look at the numbers:

  • 1,504 of the new cases came from the Veterans Affairs Department. No surprise, given the nearly intractable problems with scheduling and health care issues VA has been undergoing. Sounds like these issues have produced a lot of justifiably crabby employees.
  • 1,365 originated in the Defense Department.  Homeland Security came in a distant third with 489 cases.
  • OSC was able to close 4,666 matters using a variety of means. Relatively few cases resulted in full-blown trials before the Merit Systems Protection Board. But the OSC staff faces a growing problem: Backlogs.The resulting backlog at the end of 2014 stood at 1,969 — up from 1,397 at the end of 2013. As late as 2008 the backlog was less than 1,000 cases.

In my view, this problem is not as bad as it looks, because the bulk of matters coming into the Office of Special Counsel are disqualified or sent to an Alternative Dispute Resolution unit. Only a small share of what comes in — in 2014 it was 278 — move on from the initial Complaints Examining Unit to the Investigation and Prosecution Division. More cases are closed at that level for want of evidence than something prohibited actually happened. If the ratio holds in the  nearly 2,000 leftover cases, it would seem that the backlog is within reach.

On the other hand, the percentage of cases processed within OSC’s statutory metric of 240 days has steadily fallen from 95 percent in 2008 to 85 percent last year.

If Congress would like to do something good and cheap for federal employees, it should consider goosing up OSC’s small staff so it can clear the older cases before they balloon into a VA-sized problem.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner sums up the problem when she writes, “OSC already faces the largest case backlog in agency history, and addressing this backlog is critical to OSC’s ability to protect employees from retaliation and to respond to disclosures of wrongdoing, which continue to be received in disproportionately high levels from employees at the VA.”

Need more evidence? This year OSC says it’s on track to take in 6,000 matters.


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