Can everyone win blowing the whistle? World-leading research

By Stephen Easton

Thursday April 28, 2016

All Australian and New Zealand public sector organisations are being asked to participate in the second round of a massive collaborative research project that should help them develop more effective internal whistleblowing frameworks.

The first Whistling While They Work project took six years, involved five universities and looked only at the public sector, in partnership with anti-corruption bodies, public service commissions and central agencies across Australia. It surveyed 8813 individuals in 118 organisations from all levels of government and spawned a comprehensive guide on managing whistleblowing in public sector organisations.

The sequel, launched on Thursday in Sydney by public policy and law professor AJ Brown, will expand on that work by looking at employers from all three sectors of the economy on both sides of the Tasman.

Everyone except crooks should benefit from an effective whistleblowing framework, which deftly balances procedural fairness with whistleblower protection and management of organisational risk.

According to Brown, his past results proved that agencies could enjoy the benefits of a highly effective whistleblowing process even with “really bad legislation” or none at all.

“The power is in the hands of the agencies to make this work.”

“The power is in the hands of the agencies to make this work,” he said at a recent seminar where former integrity commissioner Phillip Moss revealed where he is going with his upcoming review of the two-year-old Public Interest Disclosure Act.

The new effort counts 14 government agencies with some responsibility for integrity as partners and three more as supporters. The research team from Griffith University, the Australian National University, the University of Sydney and Victoria University of Wellington will be asking all federal, state and local entities with 10 employees or more for input during April and May.

They also plan to ask “all of Australia’s 31,000 public, unlisted and large proprietary companies” to complete either a 20-30 minute survey that is open till June, or a much longer survey of staff, managers and systems known as “[email protected]”.

“This is the first time in history that integrity and regulatory authorities are known to have combined to approach every organisation in one country — let alone two — to get behind improved processes for effective disclosure and action against risks of public interest organisational wrongdoing, on such a comprehensive scale,” Brown said on Thursday.

Whistleblowers are among the quickest and best ways to uncover wrongdoing in any organisation, according to the professor, who runs Griffith University’s public integrity and anti-corruption program and was a senior investigator with the Commonwealth Ombudsman in the 1990s.

‘People tell academics the truth’

Brown believes he can produce more valuable results than internal surveys because public servants are much more truthful and forthcoming with academics than they are with fellow government employees.

“People tell independent academics the truth … relatively easily,” he said at the PID Act forum.

AJ Brown
AJ Brown

Brown said he had to “corner people into getting the actual, accurate information and [to be] sure about it being incontrovertible” as an investigator with the Ombudsman’s Office.

When he moved to academia, he said he was shocked by some of the results because it seemed the only explanation was that people were mostly telling the truth. “And it’s because they trust us; they trust the confidentiality and the anonymity,” he added.

Individual responses from organisations will be confidential to the university researchers, and participant responses in [email protected] will be anonymous.

“However,” Brown said at the launch, “aggregated results at jurisdictional, sectoral and organisational levels will provide unprecedented evidence of what is currently working, and why, or why not, in the encouragement and management of whistleblowing within organisations.

“This is the evidence that organisations need to help them get it right, and law reformers need to know what standards should be set in new or reformed legislation, or elsewhere, including clearer and better resourced roles for independent regulators.

“For example, the research team has already resolved to place the results behind a proposal to write the replacement to the Australian Standard on Whistleblower Protection Programs (AS 8004), which was published in 2003 but is currently withdrawn.”

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