Record-breaking number of public interest disclosures made by NSW Public Service

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday December 19, 2019

Adobe Stock

A record number of reports of corruption have been made by the New South Wales Public Service this year, with several government entities receiving praise for their good practice.

The latest report from NSW ombud Michael Barnes revealed 1,538 reports of wrongdoing were made under the Public Interest Disclosures Act 1994 in 2018-19.

Of these public interest disclosures, 422 were made to public sector bodies including government departments, local councils, aboriginal land councils, and state universities. This was a 30% increase from the previous year.

The annual report tabled in Parliament on Thursday showed allegations of corrupt conduct made up 83% of public interest disclosures made to public sector bodies.

Just over 1000 public interest disclosures were also made to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, with three quarters of these reports having come from the head of a public sector organisation. Meanwhile, 112 reports were made to other external investigating authorities, including the state ombud.

Barnes said the increase in reporting could indicate that public officials have become more willing to report misconduct, or public authorities could have simply become better at identifying reports as public interest disclosures.

Some of the public sector bodies which showed good practice in their policies and staff awareness, according to Barnes, included:

  • Lithgow City Council, for its internal reporting policy consisting of 10 principles. One principle is “a culture where employees are encouraged to report errors or mistakes, with a focus on learning and improvement rather than blame”.
  • TAFE NSW, for its public interest disclosures e-learning modules. A total of 14,758 TAFE employees have participated in the online training, which includes scenarios, case studies and quizzes. More than 200 nominated disclosures officers were trained by the ombud office. The managing director of TAFE also highlighted the importance of creating a positive reporting environment in a weekly newsletter to staff.
  • Bayside Council has provided mandatory public interest disclosures training for all staff, and developed a training workbook for staff in frontline services. Its key message for staff was “see something, hear something, say something”, and all nominated disclosures officers were briefed on their role to support a culture of openness.
  • The Mid North Coast Local Health District, the Greater Sydney Commission, and the Inner West, Cumberland, City of Parramatta, Federation, and Narrandera Shire Councils were also praised for their efforts.

The report also outlined research results from Whistling While They Work 2, a research project initiated by the Australian Research Council and led by Griffith University which aims to improve managerial responses to whistleblowing in public and private sector organisations.

A key finding from the research was that whistleblowers would be better protected if their employer were to undertake an upfront assessment of risks, such as reprisal, workplace conflict, or stress.

The report highlighted that maintaining the confidentiality of a whistleblower’s identify was not the only way to protect them, and at times would not even be possible. Organisations should intervene early, directly and proactively to reduce risks and support whistleblowers, Barnes said.

“When it does occur, proactive intervention is associated with better outcomes for reporters,” he said. “The aim should be to prevent harm to public officials who speak up.”

Some of the best practice proactive management strategies used to mitigate risk included:

  • Removing the reporter from the workplace when it was likely that they would be identified,
  • Taking measures to ensure that the reporter’s identity would be kept confidential,
  • Sending letters of direction to the subject officer of allegations advising them not to engage in certain sorts of behaviours or to take reprisal action,
  • Moving the subject officer to an alternative location or duty,
  • Conducting interviews of witnesses in a covert manner,
  • Having senior staff monitor the subject officer.

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