Usually, the U.S. Patent Office is a low-profile arm of American government created to bring order to chaotic product markets while facilitating economic development. But a brewing scandal that reflects negatively on its program allowing employees to work exclusively from home paints it as more clog than facilitator.
An internal investigation prompted by whistle-blowers seems to indicate the 600,000 backlogged applications and 5-year wait times may be due, at least in significant part, to patent examiners goofing off at home and lying about the hours they spent reviewing those applications.
About half the 8,300 examiners are part of an award-winning program that allows them to work at home full-time and, according to the investigation, some of them lied about the hours they worked, even receiving bonuses for work they didn't do.
It gets worse. Because of poor management practices, the department doesn't know the extent of the malingering. You see, when supervisors suspecting fraudulent behavior asked to have the employees' computer records pulled, top agency officials refused.
Anyone who doesn't detect the aroma of cover-up here needs to have the olfactory senses examined. But, again, that is not all.
This information -- and much more -- was detailed in an internal report prepared by investigators with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office following a two-year investigation. But when the report was finally sent to the inspector general at the Commerce Department, under whose jurisdiction the patent office falls, it had been cut in half and severely sanitized.
the Washington Post obtained copies of both documents and found the sanitized report to be lacking any details that pointed to fundamental mismanagement. The top officials now say the first report was merely a draft document.
The Commerce Department isn't buying it. Neither are we.
Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser told the Post, "What we hoped to see was an unfiltered response. That's not what this was."
Both reports made it clear that managers had few tools to monitor staff work because of policies negotiated with the patent examiners' union. For instance, managers have limited access to time records that could prove the suspected time fraud because top officials were concerned about the perception of "big brother" surveillance activities. No kidding.
The original investigation detailed a culture of fraud that is routinely overlooked by senior leaders and frustrating to front-line managers. These revelations unfortunately also do violence to the concept of teleworking.
We are strong believers in teleworking. We engaged in it ourselves somewhat, but any use of it must come with appropriate controls to ensure that a quality job is being done. That clearly isn't the case in the patent office. The Commerce Department must fix this problem now.