Nader's advice for Barra: Create an ombudsman for engineers

Nader: “If you want to make a bureaucracy accountable, you've got to make bureaucrats accountable."

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Consumer advocate Ralph Nader says General Motors CEO Mary Barra should create an independent ombudsman for engineers “who have been muzzled by their cost-concerned bosses.”

Nader, in an interview published today with New York magazine’s Daily Intelligencer, said Barra “can make some real changes inside GM. No. 1: She's got to make accountable specific people inside GM that will be punished if they allow any cover-up.”

Nader said Barra knows that GM’s faulty ignition-switch crisis will get worse.

“There are going to be whistleblowers and plain envelopes, especially when the press sees prizes -- they see Polk Awards, Pulitzers and so on -- once they get into that realm, there's no stopping it.”

This case has all the elements, Nader told the Daily Intelligencer. “Take it from someone who knows from over the years.”

In addition to hiring an ombudsman who would allow the engineers to remain anonymous, Nader thinks the odds of GM seeing criminal negligence charges are unlikely “unless the press keeps on ’em.”

“It could go into a settlement, they'll spend a couple billion dollars, they don't have to plead guilty, and they'll be on probation. The key thing is the people inside GM,” he said. “If you want to make a bureaucracy accountable, you've got to make bureaucrats accountable. … Then [GM employees] start ratting on each other and some ogre emerges.”

Asked whether automakers have improved at concealing their mistakes over the years, he replied: “They still have a cost culture, but now they have to calculate cost benefit. Is it going to cost more not to recall? Of course there are times when they drop the ball for a variety of bureaucratic and cover-your-ass reasons,” he told the Daily Intelligencer.

“That's what's operating here. The multilayered bureaucracy of GM -- years ago, when I looked into this, there [were] 18 layers between the factory floor and the CEO. When you have that, you have instituted a culture of passing the buck.”

Nevertheless, these companies have come a long way, he said.

“There's a framework -- it was nothing in the old days. They wouldn't even recall the cars. Now, for example, there's so much disclosure that it can feed the litigation. The plaintiffs' lawyers are very important to keep the heat on and get internal documents and depositions out.”

You can reach Andrew Thurlow at athurlow@crain.com.

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