Democracy Won. Now Whistleblowers Will be Critical to Maintaining Good Government.
During the Trump presidency, whistleblowers took center stage. Brave individuals stood up against the administration’s wrongdoing – sometimes at great professional and personal cost – for what was right. While this should have been celebrated, whistleblowers were repeatedly attacked by the president. Now, as a new administration takes office, President Biden has a responsibility to shine a different light on whistleblowers.
Corruption plagued the last four years, leading to whistleblower disclosures from all sectors of government. One of the most notable, the anonymous Ukraine whistleblower, came forward in August 2019. They filed a complaint detailing the months-long effort by President Trump to influence the 2020 election by pressuring Ukraine to investigate his then opponent, Vice President Joe Biden. This led to a battle that captured the nation’s attention, which resulted in the House impeaching President Trump, only for the Senate to acquit him.
While the Ukraine whistleblower may be the most recognizable case of the Trump era, they are hardly alone. At Government Accountability Project, we’ve worked with clients who have spoken out about politicization at the Department of Justice, threats to detained immigrants’ health and safety under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, and the use of appointees to eliminate political independence at government agencies. These individuals put themselves into the spotlight to speak out against injustices, not knowing how their disclosure would be handled in an environment that devalued whistleblowers. Now, following seditious efforts to overthrow democracy at the US Capitol, President Trump has been impeached again – opening the door for more whistleblowers to come forward. While shining a light on truth will never be simple, it can be significantly easier and more effective under an administration that welcomes employees of conscience.
As the nation’s leading whistleblower organization, we know firsthand how critical disclosures are for keeping good government on track. President Biden already extended an olive branch to the whistleblowing community by selecting Rick Bright for his Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. The Trump administration demoted Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, for blowing the whistle on the politicization of research. Our Legal Director Tom Devine told Government Executive that the selection of Bright was an “exciting move both in tangible and symbolic terms.” It means that whistleblowers aren’t only permitted under a new administration; they’re accepted.
While this appointment is a step in the right direction, it will take more to rebuild trust between employees and the government entities that should support them. Whistleblowers are commonly viewed as leakers, even though over ninety-five percent of them try to solve their problems internally first. They do this because they trust that raising legitimate concerns through internal protocol will resolve their disclosure. It’s only after attempts to address a problem are ignored – or worse, the individual faces retaliation – that they look outside to blow the whistle. By setting an example of valuing whistleblowers, the Biden administration could change the course of how government agencies handle disclosures.
With President Biden at the helm of the federal government, he must ensure that workers who witness wrongdoing can speak up without fear of retaliation. The administration should direct federal agencies to cooperate with independent watchdogs investigating whistleblowing cases, and support whistleblower friendly legislation like the COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act, which Vice President Kamala Harris introduced. These necessary reforms, among others, will bring effective oversight and create a more accountable government. One that listens to the truth.