Office of Congressional Workplace Rights is implementing reforms in response to sexual harassment concerns
Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Office of Congressional Workplace Rights is implementing reforms in response to sexual harassment concerns

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The reforms, among other things, nix the previous requirement that complainants participate in counseling and mediation before filing a claim.

The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) has effectively implemented three of the four requirements that there were generally effective June 19, 2019, under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (CAA), as amended in 2018 by the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The mission of the OCWR is to effectively implement and enforce the Reform Act.

Three other Reform Act mandates are still in progress, the GAO found: track and report data and assessments; conduct a workplace climate survey; and educate and assist legislative branch offices.

New reforms. Responding to concerns about sexual harassment in the workplace, Congress passed the Reform Act (S. 3749) in 2018, which expanded worker protections and overhauled the process for resolving workplace claims, including claims relating to discrimination and harassment.

Among other things, the legislation eliminates the previous requirement that an employee participate in counseling and mediation before filing a claim alleging a violation. A hearing officer appointed by the OCWR will now conduct a preliminary review of the claim to assess whether the claimant is a covered employee and has stated a claim for which relief may be granted. Claimants who do not meet those criteria must be notified by the hearing officer that they may file a civil action in a federal district court within 90 days.

Claimants who do meet the criteria may file a civilaction in a federal district court within 70 days, if they have not requested a hearing. This action terminates the preliminary review and prohibits subsequent preliminary reviews about the claim.

Management practices review. The Reform Act includes a provision for the GAO to review OCWR's management practices. The GAO’s December 2019 report examines the status of the OCWR's efforts to address new Reform Act requirements, how the OCWR is incorporating key management practices to implement the new requirements, and the extent to which the OCWR has implemented recommendations from a related 2004 GAO report.

In conducting its review, the GAO reviewed documentation on the OCWR's processes, interviewed officials from the OCWR and selected legislative branch offices, and assessed how the OCWR's actions aligned with key organizational change management practices that the GAO identified and key project management practices from the Project Management Institute.

Progress report. As of October 9, 2019, the OCWR had completed requirements to manage changes to the Administrative Dispute Resolution process, to appoint or designate a confidential advisor, and to create a secure electronic claims reporting system. However, the OCWR had not yet established and maintained a program for the permanent retention of it records. All of these requirements were generally effective as of June 19, 2019.

Also, the GAO found that the OCWR has incorporated some key management practices when implementing requirements, such as managing risks associated with appointing a confidential advisor. However, the GAO identified opportunities to further incorporate key management practices in the OCWR's work, such as:

  • Addressing risks: The OCWR has not yet developed policies and procedures to address the risks associated with permanently retaining sensitive records, such as ensuring they remain confidential when stored in multiple locations.
  • Measuring performance: The OCWR has not established measurable performance targets and milestones or related performance measures, which would allow it to determine if it is making progress toward its long-term goals and better communicate with congressional and other stakeholders about its progress.
  • Monitoring effectiveness: The OCWR routinely conducts educational activities, such as holding brown bag events and online training, and performs a variety of outreach activities. The OCWR has new opportunities every two years to collect data through the workplace climate survey on the extent to which legislative branch employees are aware of OCWR's services and their rights under the CAA.

The GAO also found that the OCWR implemented most recommendations from a 2004 GAO report examining its management controls. However, the OCWR later stopped implementing a recommendation related to information technology (IT) planning, including ensuring that it obtained necessary IT skills. Without IT strategic planning, including recruiting and retaining staff with mission-critical IT skills, the OCWR may be less able to carry out its strategic initiatives.

Recommendations. The GAO made six recommendations to the OCWR to better incorporate key management practices as it implements requirements, and to improve its strategic planning, suggesting that the OCWR’s Executive Director should:

  1. In collaboration with relevant managers, establish a policy that requires a schedule of tasks to be developed, documented, and updated throughout the lifetime of IT system projects.
  2. Identify and assess risks in establishing and maintaining a permanent records retention program, and develop policies and procedures to ensure that risks are properly addressed.
  3. Identify desired performance results, develop performance measures that demonstrate the degree to which the desired results were achieved, and report progress toward those results in the OCWR's annual reports.
  4. Collect relevant data through a survey or other mechanisms, and use the information to evaluate the effectiveness of education and outreach efforts and the extent to which they are reaching all covered legislative branch populations.
  5. Integrate IT planning and implementation into the agency's strategic planning process.
  6. Incorporate key strategic human capital management practices, such as developing strategies to recruit and retain staff with mission-critical skills, into the strategic planning process.

The OCWR agreed with the GAO's recommendations, according to the report.

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