Feds use FOIA to raise possible discrimination

Transparency advocates sometimes get lost in the wonk swamp, burying listeners with acronyms and jargon only a prisoner of the Potomac could appreciate.   This affliction makes it hard to broaden appreciation for how openness makes a difference.  But open government should have a few new friends at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility if their allegations of discrimination prove true.

While the space agency recently received high marks in an OpenTheGovernment.org audit of federal agency Open Government Plans, employees at the Virginia center located three hours from Washington, DC used FOIA to show African American employees received lower employee evaluations than others at the center, while senior managers received high marks, according to a congressional budget report released July 22.  This finding raises serious questions about whether employees face discrimination or unfairly high standards.

The evidence was convincing enough for no less than the Senate Appropriations Committee to note it in two paragraphs deep in its report accompanying S. 3636, which sets NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2011.  They describe it this way:

Employee Performance Communications System [ECPS].—The EPCS is a five-level performance appraisal system that was implemented in 2007. This system superseded a three-level EPCS that encouraged employee participation in establishing performance standards. Information obtained by employees under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] reveals that this system, as implemented at the Wallops Flight Facility, resulted in a disproportionate number of less-than fully successful ratings given to African-Americans. Although African-Americans constitute 14 percent of the civil-service workforce at the Wallops Flight Facility, this group constitutes 67 percent of the needs improvement ratingsThe FOIA information also revealed that no supervisor or management official received a rating less than fully successful for the calendar year 2009 appraisal period. The Agency’s own findings reveal the woeful inadequacies of the EPCS. An Agency-directed OSHA Voluntary Protection Program [VPP] report found that, with regard to the safety and health performance element (an element assigned to at least 90 percent of the Wallops workforce), the metrics for evaluation and rating of employees is unclear. Therefore, the Committee requests that the Government Accountability Office [GAO] audit review NASA’s EPCS system to examine its fairness and effectiveness. The GAO’s review should pay special attention to whether the system discriminates on the basis of race or gender or imposes higher burdens on employees not serving in management positions.

Pouring through budget bills is not glamorous work, but every so often we find startling information.  A few years ago, we found the proposal buried deep in the president’s budget to eliminate the FOIA ombudsman office (pdf) before it got off the ground.

If the GAO study finds discriminatory practices exist & steps are taken to fix the problem, those employees should pat themselves on the back for using FOIA. And then they should take a moment to support open government.