1. Introduction

A. J. Brown and Marika Donkin

Table of Contents

Whistleblowing: shifting the focus
The Whistling While They Work project
What is ‘whistleblowing’?
What is ‘wrongdoing’?
Methods and further limitations
Continuing analysis: towards best practice

Whistleblowing: shifting the focus

Of the many challenges in modern public sector management, few are as complex as the encouragement and management of whistleblowing. The complexity of the challenge is underscored by a severe lack of knowledge about some of the basic facts regarding this important phenomenon.

Because it can lead to the discovery and rectification of wrongdoing, whistleblowing is widely acknowledged as having potentially positive effects—for organisations and for society at large. It is also, however, widely assumed to be undervalued in organisations and in many situations as a relatively rare event likely to involve something of a ‘crisis’ for the organisation involved. This is because, almost by definition, whistleblowing is often accompanied by many conflicts, tensions and short-term negative effects—including for whistleblowers—whatever long-term positive outcomes might also emerge. Indeed, the problems often associated with whistleblowing have led to a widespread belief that every whistleblower is destined to suffer for their experience and that nothing can be done to protect them from reprisals. Even if they do it once, a sensible employee is often seen as unlikely to blow the whistle a second time.

This bleak picture provides public sector managers with little hope for, or reason to invest in, strategies for encouraging staff to blow the whistle on perceived wrongdoing within their organisation. In this book, however, this bleak picture is revealed to be substantially inaccurate. Resulting from continuing research involving up to 304 public sector agencies from four Australian jurisdictions, the preliminary analysis presented here shows the management of whistleblowing to be a far more varied and sometimes far more positive area of organisational and administrative practice. Rather than rare or ‘special’, whistleblowing is a routine activity in the majority of Australian public sector agencies. As Chapter 2 explains, on a conservative estimate, perhaps 12 per cent of all public servants have reported some form of public interest wrongdoing in their organisation in a two-year period—an estimate that would equate to 197 000 public servants nationally. At least as many public servants who have directly observed wrongdoing choose not to report it; nevertheless, on average, the number prepared to do so is high.

The level and frequency of whistleblowing appears to have gone under-recognised, until now, for various reasons. Much of this reporting remains confidential. Legislative requirements and administrative systems for the reporting of whistleblowing are patchy. Many if not most whistleblowers prefer not to be tagged as such. There is confusion and inconsistency in the ways in which whistleblowing is defined and labelled. Finally, until very recently, systematic, independent research has been limited. All these explanations raise different, but soluble problems for public sector management.

Another departure from the previous bleak picture comes in new evidence, set out in Chapter 5, that it is not inevitable that whistleblowers must suffer for their experience. Overall, a substantial majority of officials who reported public interest concerns in recent years—on average, at least 70 per cent—responded that management and colleagues treated them either the same or as well as a result of the incident. Contrary to many stereotypes about the fate of whistleblowers, there are a great many who do not experience deliberately inflicted negative outcomes. These results accord with other evidence that the social and organisational importance of whistleblowing is well recognised in many public agencies. While debate is alive and well about how to manage the complexities of these situations, many agencies have actively grappled with the practical issue of how to encourage staff to disclose perceived wrongdoing, and even with the difficult issue of how to protect staff from reprisals should they do so.

While this research changes the previously bleak picture, it also brings a shift in focus. New questions arise. Previously, concerns centred on whether whistleblowing processes could be made to work at all. Now the question becomes: how is it that some organisations appear to be encouraging and managing whistleblowing more successfully than others? Some of the agencies studied can boast that less than 10 per cent of employees who observed serious wrongdoing did nothing about it. In at least one organisation in each of the four jurisdictions, however, more than 55 per cent of staff in the same position did nothing—they neither reported the wrongdoing nor took any other action. The answers to this lie in the context and culture of these different organisations.

Similarly, in some agencies, the proportion of whistleblowers that claimed mistreatment fell close to zero. In others, however, upwards of 46 per cent claimed to have been mistreated directly by management of the agency as a result. Moreover, even when direct reprisals are not involved, the evidence shows that whistleblowing often involves stress, tension and lasting consequences that prove difficult for whistleblowers and their organisations alike. When whistleblowers survive the experience, this is likely to be despite the formal management systems of their organisations for dealing with such situations, rather than because of them. As Chapter 9 reveals, even when agencies have developed special ‘internal witness’ management programs to better support their staff, perhaps only 1.3 per cent of all public interest whistleblowers are making it onto the ‘radar’ of these programs.

This book sets out both sides of this complex reality. Resulting from the world’s largest known study of whistleblowing on a per capita basis, it provides the first comprehensive empirical data in Australia on the relative effects—and therefore the strengths and weaknesses—of a decade of legislative and management reform on the issue of public interest whistleblowing. The analysis draws on the results of this empirical research, together with qualitative assessment of the procedures used by agencies to guide their responses and comparative analysis of the different legislative frameworks in place. The conclusions flow from an analysis of all these facets of the way in which public sector whistleblowing is currently managed.

Part 1 of the book presents the empirical data, looking at the experiences of a wide range of public servants across a wide range of agencies, including those who observe wrongdoing but don’t report it and those who report it and do or don’t suffer. The five chapters in this section examine the results of the project surveys as a whole, typically presenting an aggregate or averaged picture of the experiences of public officials in total. The chapters also, however, point to the substantial differences in outcomes depending on the circumstances in which wrongdoing is seen and whistleblowing occurs, including the substantial differences in the responses of different agencies.

Part 2 begins the major shift in focus that is needed as a result of this research. It presents the empirical data describing, or most relevant to, the different management environments and systems in public sector agencies within which reporting and non-reporting occur. The five chapters in this part cover management attitudes in general, internal investigation standards, internal witness support programs, agency whistleblowing procedures and the legislative context. Through this shift in focus, the research sets out a new basis for evaluating what types of management approaches are making a difference and what types of procedural and legislative reforms are needed to reinforce best-practice approaches.

A second report from the project will help complete this new picture of current and prospective best practice for the management of whistleblowing at an organisational level. The findings reached here, however, already point the way to some of the major reforms needed. Agencies that make more credible efforts to encourage whistleblowing and protect their staff are achieving more positive results and are therefore showing the way for the development of more comprehensive models of best practice in the management of whistleblowing. At the same time, the relative success of these agencies provides the evidence that many more systems are patchy and are therefore missing out on achieving more positive outcomes in a higher proportion of whistleblowing cases. Chapter 10 assesses only five of 175 agencies nationally as having developed reasonably strong procedures for the management of whistleblowing, measured against the current Australian Standard. Legislative regimes for managing whistleblowing are indeed having positive effects, but they contain many problems and gaps, which must be addressed in a more comprehensive and consistent way if the original intent is to be fulfilled. There is some way to go to bring these regimes up to an acceptable overall standard, and a long way to go before a majority of individual public sector agencies are maximising their chances of gaining improved outcomes for themselves and their staff.

This new picture of public sector whistleblowing shows it will be worth the effort to travel these distances. In a field of policy and public management that previously looked wholly bleak, these data show that many more of these complex conflicts are being, and can be, resolved in a positive manner. By managing whistleblowing better, outcomes can be found that are just to individuals, serve the long-term interests of organisations and better discharge our institutions’ wider obligations to ensure transparency and integrity in public office.