What is ‘whistleblowing’?

The essential feature of whistleblowing is the ‘disclosure by organisation members (former or current) of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organisations that may be able to effect action’ (Miceli and Near 1984:689). This definition provides a sound starting point because it allows for the many types of wrongdoing about which such disclosures might arise and the many forms that whistleblowing can take (Miceli et al. 2001). It is also the most commonly accepted and widely used definition in related empirical research (Tavakoli et al. 2003).

In this book, whistleblowing is also taken to mean disclosure by organisation members about matters of ‘public interest’—that is, suspected or alleged wrongdoing that affects more than the personal or private interests of the person making the disclosure (Senate Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing 1994:Par.2.2). This qualification aligns with most public and public policy conceptions of the term and with the objectives of the many different legislative regimes for public sector whistleblower protection now in place in Australia. Despite the controversies surrounding policy and legislative responses to whistleblowing, the objectives of this legislation are relatively consistent and clear (NSW Ombudsman 2004a; Brown 2006:5):

  1. to facilitate public interest disclosures—that is, to encourage whistleblowing

  2. to ensure that disclosures by whistleblowers are properly dealt with—that is, properly assessed, investigated and actioned

  3. to ensure the protection of whistleblowers from reprisals taken against them as a result of their having made the disclosure.

In its method, the present research did not use the term ‘whistleblowing’ itself, just as no existing legislative regime actually makes substantive use of the term. Instead, our surveys asked respondents about ‘wrongdoing’ of which they were aware (discussed further below) and whether they or anyone else had formally ‘reported’ it. Throughout the research, however, there remains an important distinction between wrongdoing that can be considered resolved when an affected individual considers it resolved (personal or private interest) and wrongdoing that threatens wider organisational and/or public integrity, above and beyond any outcomes for affected individuals (public interest). Conventionally, whistleblowing refers to the latter category, and it is used in this sense in this book.

Whistleblowing is an important public policy issue for two major reasons. Integrity in government relies on the effective operation of a range of ‘integrity systems’ for keeping institutions and their office-holders honest and accountable (Brown et al. 2005; Dobel 1999; Spigelman 2004; Uhr 2005). Within these systems, few individuals are better placed to observe or suspect wrongdoing within an organisation than its very own officers and employees. In Australia, this was brought into sharp relief by the Fitzgerald Inquiry into official corruption in Queensland (1987–89), which established that honest police officers had observed corruption but felt powerless to act. Even so, their honest evidence remained important in finally bringing corrupt officers to justice. Consequently, Queensland became the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce (interim) whistleblower protection legislation (Queensland Electoral and Administrative Review Commission 1991). There is now a substantial consensus in Australian public policy that irrespective of the challenges it might involve, whistleblowing is a crucial resource in modern efforts to pursue public integrity.

The second major reason is that, given natural organisational and peer pressures for employees to stay silent about public interest wrongdoing, whistleblowing is often not something that is likely to happen naturally, especially in a timely fashion. While organisation members might have many incentives to disclose workplace wrongdoing that affects them personally, there are less direct incentives—and many direct disincentives—for them to notice or report wrongdoing that affects only organisational interests or the larger public interest. As recorded in the early Australian research and overseas (Near et al. 2004; Miceli and Near 2006), even the most noble employee is justified in thinking twice about coming forward. Predictably, the wrongdoing exposed might be controversial and damaging and its disclosure could provoke conflicts that involve negative outcomes for all involved. For whistleblowing to be properly encouraged, it is clear that these natural disincentives to reporting must be reduced, removed or overcome.

While simple in theory, the definition of whistleblowing is complex in practice. First and foremost, whistleblowers are understood to be ‘organisation members’ (for example, employees, volunteer workers or contractors) for both of the above reasons. It is their internal position in the organisation that is most likely to make them aware of internal wrongdoing and also most likely to place them under pressure to stay silent. At times, however, any person who claims to have revealed wrongdoing might also seek to claim this title, even when they are outside the organisation concerned—for example, when they are an aggrieved consumer, client or citizen complainant. The fact that legislation in five Australian jurisdictions currently supports this second concept of a whistleblower—confusing the purpose of whistleblower protection—is a basic issue for reform (see Brown 2006:8; Chapter 11, this volume).

Different conceptions of whistleblowing also stem from the question of ‘to whom an official may validly make a disclosure’ in expectation of action. For most citizens, the quintessential example of whistleblowing is public—such as a disclosure to the media or one that reaches the public–political domain. Journalist Laurie Oakes (2005) reinforced this perception when he wrote that ‘leaks, and whistleblowers, are essential to a proper democratic system’, and recent Commonwealth prosecutions of officials for making unauthorised disclosures have increased the focus on this issue (Brown 2007). Some academic commentators even regard public disclosure as the only ‘true’ form of whistleblowing (for example, Grace and Cohen 1998; Dawson 2000; Truelson 2001). Certainly, in the view of the Whistling While They Work project team, there will always be a legitimate role for some public whistleblowing—a fact that needs to be recognised in any credible whistleblower protection regime. The implications are discussed further in Chapter 11, especially in light of the Commonwealth Government’s recent acknowledgment of this issue.

While it is obviously the ‘loudest’ form, public whistleblowing also easily takes on a prominence that excludes proper attention on other important types of disclosure. Whistleblowing is not always ‘public’, in the sense of being subject to widespread publicity. Chapter 4 suggests that public whistleblowing is statistically infrequent and usually represents the disclosure avenue of last resort, with the bulk of whistleblowing taking place either internally or as a ‘regulatory’ disclosure to a government integrity agency. It is also clear that if whistleblowing is handled responsibly by organisations in this first instance, the outcomes are more likely to be positive than if the matter is forced to escalate into a public–political conflict. Consequently, in our research, the crucial element is that the information is communicated ‘to those who need to know about it’—that is, it is made ‘public’ in the sense of being made ‘a matter of public record’ (see Elliston 1985:8, 15, 21–2), which could be quite confidentially as well as with great publicity.

In practice, assessments of what whistleblowing is can also hinge on issues of motive: why the relevant employee is believed to be making the disclosure. The question of motive is, however, deliberately absent from the definition above. This is because a valid matter of public interest can be raised without the person who raises it necessarily being driven by altruistic motives. Public interest disclosures made for self-serving reasons or as part of a personal grievance nevertheless remain public interest disclosures. The question of motive has therefore long been regarded by analysts as irrelevant to whether a disclosure amounts to whistleblowing, even though perceptions of motive could be relevant to how a disclosure is then managed.

The best way of understanding the secondary importance of motivations in whistleblowing is by understanding such disclosures as examples of ‘pro-social behaviour’ (Dozier and Miceli 1985; Brief and Motowidlo 1986). This is behaviour that is ‘defined by some significant segment of society and/or one’s social group as generally beneficial to other people’ (Penner et al. 2005:366), irrespective of what particular benefits, if any, are intended in the individual case. Figure 1.1 outlines the model of whistleblowing as pro-social organisational behaviour (POB) initially presented by Dozier and Miceli (1985) and since revised by Miceli et al. (2001) and Miceli and Near (2006).

Figure 1.1 Model of whistleblowing as pro-social behaviour
Figure 1.1 Model of whistleblowing as pro-social behaviour

Source: Adapted by M. Donkin from Miceli, M. P., Van Scotter, J. R., Near, J. P. and Rehg, M. 2001, ‘Responses to perceived organisational wrongdoing: do perceiver characteristics matter?’, in J. M. Darley, D. M. Messick and T. R. Tyler (eds), Social Influences on Ethical Behaviour, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 119–35; and Miceli, M. P. and Near, J. P. 2006, Whistle-blowing as constructive deviance: an integration of the prosocial and social information processing models, Manuscript submitted for publication.

The POB model draws on Latané and Darley’s (1970) theory of ‘bystander effect’, which explains why witnesses to a crime might not intervene. It proposes that when employees become aware of wrongdoing, they make decisions in similar ways to these witnesses. What, if anything, a witness hopes or stands to gain by coming forward does not affect the utility of their role or its ‘pro-social’ value as part of society’s system of criminal justice.

The POB model also suggests that blowing the whistle is not a single decision but rather a complex process. Even the assessment that the behaviour in question constitutes wrongdoing, or that a response is warranted, is a subjective judgment. Miceli et al. (1991) found that the final decision regarding whether to act was related to a number of individual, organisational and situational factors, including judgments about the reporting environment and cues about whether reporting was likely to change the behaviour.

Even internationally, however, few empirical studies have attempted to demonstrate the link between whistleblowing and pro-social behaviour more generally, instead simply using it as an explanatory theory, by assuming or observing indirect links (Miceli and Near 2006). For example, Miceli and Near (2005:11–12) advised that prominent American whistleblowing cases ‘appeared’ to demonstrate pro-social behaviour, but that research was needed to ‘clarify relationships’. In the present research, it was therefore decided to look for the combination of factors that gave rise to whistleblowing decisions in Australian public sector settings and for direct evidence that it was accurate to describe whistleblowing as a pro-social process.

Chapters 3 and 4 set out the results. Chapter 3 shows that organisational and situational factors typically prove more distinctive in the mix of decision making than many of the measurable characteristics of individuals. Both chapters confirm the accuracy of the description of whistleblowing as pro-social behaviour in an Australian public sector context, particularly by examining reporting behaviour in terms of established scales of organisational citizenship behaviour: ‘individual behaviour that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognised by the formal reward system, and that…promotes the effective functioning of the organisation’ (Organ 1988:4; see also Graham 1989; Penner et al. 2005).

This approach to issues of motive contrasts with several other approaches, in which the motives of whistleblowers are seen as more central to how whistleblowing is defined and categorised. Because it has positive organisational and social effects, and can indeed sometimes be selfless, whistleblowing is often presented by commentators as being always selfless even though this is unlikely to be the case. Whistleblowing has therefore been described as an example of civil disobedience (Elliston 1985:135–44), ethical resistance (Glazer and Glazer 1989; Martin 1997) and/or principled organisational dissent (Lennane 1993, cf. de Maria 1999:28–9), as if ethical reasoning is always involved. One author has even generalised that whistleblowers should be considered the ‘saints of secular culture’ (Grant 2002:391). In seeking to emphasise the public interest relevance of whistleblowing, even Australia’s Senate Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing suggested, unhelpfully, that whistleblowers should be recognised as always ‘motivated by notions of public interest’ (Senate Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing 1994:Par.2.2, emphasis added; see also de Maria and Jan 1994:5–7).

This emphasis raises significant problems. Even if many whistleblowers are altruistic, to make this a defining characteristic and therefore a prerequisite for whistleblower protection is extremely problematic. On this approach, a substantial proportion of whistleblowers will never qualify, simply because they might also have a personal or private interest in the outcome. Whistleblowers who cannot prove that they conform to a stereotype of pure or altruistic motivation—which could be the bulk of them—can be relegated to a different category, including the equal and opposite stereotype of mere ‘vengeful troublemakers’ (Lewis 2001). Such stereotypes therefore confound the purpose of recognising whistleblowing in the first place.

Another problem is posed by a further definitional variant—that of defining whistleblowers in terms of the outcome of their experience. After his survey of 83 Queensland whistleblowers in 1994–95, de Maria concluded that the definition of a whistleblower should include the feature of suffering, because he recorded no individuals who had not suffered in some way; ‘the non-suffering’ whistleblower was seen as ‘a contradiction in terms’ (de Maria 1999:25). There are two major problems with this qualification. First, as already noted, de Maria’s sample was limited to respondents recruited by a newspaper advertisement and word-of-mouth, a method naturally more likely to attract aggrieved people than those who had not suffered. Second, the qualification is impossible to reconcile with a major policy rationale of defining whistleblowing in the first place—namely, to protect whistleblowers in a positive or proactive way before they experience bad outcomes. A definition that enables whistleblowing incidents to be recognised only after conflict has arisen and damage is done cannot function to help identify whistleblowing for the purpose of preventing or reducing such damage. In this report, outcomes are an essential issue for analysis, but do not define who is a whistleblower.

Finally, this research also makes use of the term ‘internal witness’ as an alternative to ‘whistleblower’ in the context of internal and regulatory disclosures. This term was developed by the NSW Police Force (Freeman 1998; Smith 1996; Wood 1997:408) and is now also in increasing use among other public sector agencies in Australia. It aligns with the pro-social role of whistleblowing, akin to other witness roles, as discussed above. The value of this term also lies in combating a number of problematic stereotypes of whistleblowers, given that, in practice, disclosures can be made not just for a wide variety of motives but in a wide variety of ways, including with differing levels of formality and under different degrees of legal compulsion. It should be noted, however, that this term, as used in this research, is consistent with the definition of whistleblowing given earlier.