If you come across seriously bad behaviour at work, you have a lot better chance of being able to blow the whistle without suffering serious personal consequences if you work in the public sector than anywhere else.
This is not say there isn’t room for improvement — there is, plenty — but which government has the best framework?
The answer is the Commonwealth, followed closely by Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia, according to new results from an ongoing joint research project on whistleblowing frameworks in Australia and New Zealand.
While the top six rankings are public sector jurisdictions, the finance and insurance industry comes in seventh, ahead of the ACT government.
The Northern Territory was slightly ahead of Tasmania, but both are below the nonprofit health care and social assistance sector, as well as private sector companies that fell into the survey’s “other” category, and separated from the ACT by a reasonable margin.
It is no surprise that when all the public, private and not-for-profit sectors are ranked, the three tiers of government top the list. The feds came first, followed by state and territory governments, with local government in third place — although complaints and disclosures about councils often go through state institutions.
“Government institutions perform better in the analysis, but it’s clear there are still shortcomings,” said Griffith University public policy professor AJ Brown, the study leader and one of the nation’s top academic experts on public sector integrity and whistleblowing.
“Significant differences between Australian governments show that the level of commitment governments and oversight agencies put into these systems really does make a difference.”
The new rankings come from data collected through the groundbreaking survey-based research project Whistling While They Work 2, which kicked off last April and released preliminary results in November.
A review of the Commonwealth’s Public Interest Disclosure scheme, by former law enforcement integrity commissioner Philip Moss, demonstrated that even the nation’s best whistleblowing framework has plenty of room to improve.
The Commonwealth’s system, while the best of them all, only achieved a score of 6.95 out of 10. All governments except the Northern Territory and Tasmania beat the average of 5.66, although in the case of the ACT, only by the barest possible margin.
The overall survey rankings are based on separate scores for categories described as: incident tracking, support strategies, risk assessment, dedicated support and remediation:
“The five sub-scales measure relative strength of processes for incident reporting and tracking; whether there is an active support strategy for staff who raise concerns; whether there are risk assessment processes for anticipating and preventing detrimental actions or reprisals; whether there are dedicated supports or only generalised supports for staff who report; and strength of processes for remediation of detrimental impacts or reprisals, if they occur.”
The researchers report that “most sectors are finding it difficult to realise their own goals of having processes which provide strong staff support and protection” and therefore encourage whistleblowers to come forward:
“The results highlight that efforts towards strong processes for ensuring support and protection can and should be enhanced, across all sectors and in individual sectors.”
The typical problem of going from the general to the specific applies here. It’s easy for politicians or the leaders of government agencies and companies to say they welcome genuine disclosures. Who wouldn’t? But when a specific case comes forward, its legitimacy and the credibility of the whistleblower are often questioned.
When a disclosure concerns the actions and words of ministers and other members of the government, or very senior public servants working closely with the government of the day, the difference between an illegal leak and a public interest disclosure is very much up for argument. And even when there is unquestionably crooked behaviour exposed, the management of political and reputational risks is still a big part of the process of dealing with it.
While it is the world’s first survey “to collect data on whistleblowing processes in a consistent way across organisations from a full diversity of sectors” the report cautions that the data is self-reported and thus may not reflect the real state of affairs. The authors add:
“The results nevertheless provide a new basis for comparison of the state of whistleblowing processes as reported by a wide cross-section of organisations, drawing not only on an unprecedented number, but an unprecedented range in terms of size, industries, public sector functions and not-for-profit activities.
“This provides a new basis for investigating whether differences in the strength of organisational processes relate in part or whole to the operating environments of organisations, including factors such as different regulatory/legal requirements, extent or quality of oversight, or different industry standards, imperatives or cultures.”