WASHINGTON—According to VA officials, the agency is well on its way to creating a culture that will allow whistleblowers to feel safe to report facility problems without fear of retaliation from supervisors. Yet, whistleblower advocates argue that the culture hasn’t changed, retaliation remains common and the steps VA is taking will do little to make whistleblowers feel safer.
This sharp divide between the optimism of VA officials and the skepticism of whistleblower advocates was made clear last month at the second of two hearings of the House VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations addressing the issue of retaliation.
The first, in June, focused on testimony from VA employees who, after coming forward about problems in their facilities, were subject to years of retaliation from supervisors. This second hearing was an opportunity to respond for the federal agencies tasked with investigating whistleblower retaliation.
Leading the VA response was Tamara Bonzanto, DNP, RN, head of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which was created by an executive order in 2017.
“There’s definitely been a change in the culture,” Bonzanto said. “There’s more support from leadership in engaging staff and having conversations about whistleblower retaliation. We engage our veterans, and we listen to our veterans, but we also engage our staff and listen to them. There’s room for improvement, I admit that. And I think OAWP is a part of that; engaging with stakeholders to improve our processes.”
Having only been in the job for seven months, Bonzanto has been charged with smoothing over a rocky start for the OAWP, which included infighting with the VA Office of Inspector General over disclosure of documents. After listening to the previous hearing, where a refrain from witnesses was a lack of trust in the protection agency and in the opaque nature of the complaint and investigation process, Bonsanto’s takeaway was that the agency needs to work on communication with whistleblowers.
“Customer service—it’s that soft skill,” she said. “Understanding that there might be a fear of retaliation and giving them confidence in the system.”
VA Inspector General Michael Missal testified that OAWP is certainly improving under Bonzanto’s leadership but that change of this magnitude will not happen swiftly.
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