Streamlining Complaints

Pity the federal worker who files a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. With any luck, it will take four years or more to get a ruling on the case.

But things may be changing soon for federal employees and the EEOC. If a federal task force has its way, there will be no more complaints filed on paper. No more lost files. No more incomplete cases or delayed decisions. But some worry that this may mean sacrificing privacy for improved efficiency.

An interagency task force of representatives from the EEOC and the U.S.

National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR), plans to release a report this fall on how federal agencies can make their complaint systems more effective. And among its antici-pated suggestions is a centralized database at the EEOC to track discrimination cases that are now tracked on paper. The database is also expected to require specific information for every complaint and a secure line to transmit the data in real time.

The recommendation is a response to criticism from the U.S. General Accounting Office that the EEOC is incapable of quickly resolving disputes and unable even to tell Congress exactly how many cases are pending at any given time.

Last year, the EEOC received 21,868 bias complaints. It was the first year the agency had tracked the number of complaints. No other data is available because the EEOC is running two years behind in compiling its numbers the old-fashioned way - by hand.

"If you are going to find systematic problems, you have to have the right data," said Karen Freeman, co-chairwoman of the NPR/EEOC Interagency Federal EEO Task Force.

But the idea of a centralized system is setting off alarms among organizations that represent federal managers.

"Collecting extensive information on each and every case that is filed, and compiling it into a single database, would likely result in the single largest federal database on a specific group of citizens ever developed," said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents top-level government employees.

"We don't question their intent for a minute, but stuff happens," she continued. "Databases are not always as secure as we would wish, and that information becomes available whether intentionally or unintentionally."

Bill Bransford, who often represents federal managers and executives as a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Shaw, Bransford, Veilleux & Roth, agreed.

"There's nothing wrong with holding a manager responsible," Bransford said.

"The problem is, it's going to be available at every EEO office throughout the government and widely disseminated."

There is no plan to gather information to track individuals, the EEOC maintained."We would never do anything to jeopardize the privacy rights of an employee," said Carlton Hadden, acting director of the EEOC's Office of Federal Operations. "There needs to be some central data system so we know what is happening in the federal government."

Privacy think tanks, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), say the dispute is one of many erupting throughout government as it tries to create large databases that can be hacked or potentially opened up to the public.

"With databases, you have to be careful the information is going to be protected" and not used inappropriately, said Sarah Andrews, policy analyst at EPIC. "So that means it's not only secure against unauthorized access and use, but it is also kept up-to-date and accurate."

Hadden pointed to the interface between the EEOC and state and local governments to demonstrate that there is already a safety valve in place.

Although local agencies gather data for the EEOC, "someone in Fairfax County, [Va.], could not access the data available to the EEOC staff," he said. "These complaints are so far removed from where we are trying to go, and that is using the technology more efficiently and effectively."

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