How to be a whistle-blower

The whistleblower du jour is Edward Snowden, whose revelations about NSA snooping are getting top billing on news sites in 2013.  In 2010, we learned about something called The National Whistleblower Assembly, which offered tips and support to government whistleblowers, and we’re republishing the post in light of what’s happening now.

When a government worker makes the decision to “blow the whistle” on corruption and fraud in an agency or program, he or she embarks on an often lonely and always risky journey. in Jun3 2010, whistleblowers, journalists, government employees and leaders of government-watchdog groups gathered in Washington, DC, at the improbable-sounding National Whistleblower Assembly to offer support and advice for the courageous efforts of these truth-tellers.

The two-day convention was sponsored by a who’s who of government watchdogs and government-employee organizations, including the American Federation of Government Employees, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, National Treasury Employees Union and Semmelweis Society International. The prime movers were the Government Accountability Project  (GAP) and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), two well-established and highly respected, independent, non-profit groups. GAP’s mission is to promote corporate and government accountability by protecting whistleblowers, advancing occupational free speech, and empowering citizen activists. POGO investigates and exposes corruption and other misconduct in order to achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.  Founded in 1981, POGO originally worked to expose outrageously overpriced military spending on items such as a $7,600 coffee maker and a $436 hammer.

This year’s conference—the group’s 10th—served up an intriguing line-up of seminars, speeches and panel discussions, led by famous whistleblowers, including Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1974. In an atmosphere that encourages “honesty without fear,” (the slogan of the National Whistleblower Center), participants could attend seminars on air-traffic safety, corporate and occupational safety, and FBI and medical whistle-blowing. In addition, this year’s conference served as a collective final push to get the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (S 372), adopted into law.

As an example of the kind of practical support the assembly offered, here’s a summary, by James Budnick of POGO, of tips for whistleblowers, presented at a panel discussion called, “How to Work Effectively with the Media.”

  1. Find an interested reporter
    You’ll want to find a reporter who will want to publish your case. This will require some research on your part to ensure that the journalist has a background in your investigation topic.
  2. Capture the reporter’s attention
    As Mr. Nolan put it, “don’t start out with the creation of dinosaurs”—get to the point quickly by giving them a taste of your story, leaving them hungry for more. You don’t want to bore them but rather motivate them to run your story. One of the best ways of doing this is by telling them “I have evidence” or better yet “I have tape” (if you have it).
  3. Decide if you want to be public or private
    Some whistleblowers want to be the face of their cause and lead the way in an investigation. But if you want to remain anonymous, then make sure you have a confidentiality agreement with the journalist you are working with—know what the agreement specifically entails and also know exactly what it means to be confidential.
  4. Understand that the journalist will be demanding
    This is a good thing. The journalist will have lots of questions to ask and will conduct research on the topic to ensure that nothing has been fabricated so that the story will be as effective as possible.
  5. Don’t hold back
    By asking a lot of questions and keeping in contact with the reporter, you will help them with their research and steer them toward the right path of the investigation. Just don’t be a pain in the butt!
  6. On working with multiple reporters
    The panelists encouraged would-be whistleblowers to seek multiple reporters to cover your case, because it will increase your chances for a story or investigation. But you should inform them about this from the beginning. If they find out that there are other journalists working on your case and you didn’t tell them, then it could hurt your chances of being published.
  7. Going public could help your case
    If you happen to be public about your case and not remain anonymous, then it could help you in the future. You may inspire other whistleblowers to come forward and contact you with possible evidence, which could be used in an investigation.
  8. Reach out
    You are not alone in your cause, and it may be beneficial to contact an organization that can help you, such as POGO or GAP.