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Encouraging public sector whistleblowing

In our latest podcast we chat with Dr Suelette Dreyfus, Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Information Systems at The University of Melbourne.

In our latest podcast we chat with Dr Suelette Dreyfus, Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Information Systems at The University of Melbourne.

Dr Dreyfus is a technology researcher, journalist, and writer, and her fields of research include the impact of technology on whistleblowing. We discuss the importance of blowing the whistle on corruption and how we can encourage people in the public sector to speak up.

From 1 January 2020, the Protected Disclosure Act 2012 is replaced by the Public Interest Disclosures Act 2012. See Public interest disclosures for more information.

  • Music intro 

    Facilitator: Hello and welcome to the latest IBAC podcast. Today we're talking with Dr Suelette Dreyfus, Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne.  Suelette is a technology researcher, journalist and writer and her work includes research on the impact of technology on whistleblowing.  Today we're going to be discussing the importance of blowing the whistle on corruption and how we can encourage people in the public sector to speak up.

    Good afternoon, Suelette.

    Facilitator: Why are whistle-blowers important in our society?
    Interviewee: I like to think of whistleblowers as being like ballast in a ship that tends to right it when it's listing too far to one side or the other.  That's because when you get corruption or serious wrong doing as in taking a bribe - they actually impose the values of the society they live in on an assessment of whether or not what's being done is right or wrong.  All it takes is one person in the room to actually stand up to say, no this is not right and it re-rights the ship.

    Facilitator: You've researched protected disclosure approaches all over the world. What are some of the key jurisdictions you've looked at?
    Interviewee: So I've been a part of some terrific academic teams and as a team and with our colleagues we've examined whistle-blowing in the UK, in Australia, in Iceland and also in some parts of South Eastern Europe, so in Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia among other countries. 

    Facilitator: What are your observations on attitudes in some of these jurisdictions to protected disclosures?

    Interviewee: It's interesting, they do vary. Although Iceland, the UK and Australia have a lot of similarities between them. Now that's possibly because they're relatively wealthy countries or maybe they're just all islands, I don't know.

    But some of the similarities that we found was about surveying the public of their attitudes to whistleblowers and there was some interesting statistics around attitudes of whether or not the most effective way to get action to stop serious wrongdoing is actually to report to people in authority via official channels or whether it was to go to a journalist or news organisation or whether or not it was to go to the public directly via say Twitter or social media or if there was no effective way.

    The figure that we got for all three countries was around 47, 51, 56 per cent, in that range. The highest of those in terms of reporting by official channels was actually in Australia, so 56 per cent of people thought that that was the best way and in Iceland it was a bit lower, 47 per cent.  Interestingly, Iceland had the highest support for the public's view that whistle-blowers should be allowed to go to the media.  That was also quite high in the UK and in Australia, it was in the order of 87 or so per cent.

    So it's a huge number of the population. But more than 80 per cent of people in all those countries felt that whistle-blowers should be protected not punished, even if they were revealing information from inside an organisation.  In a sense that's the most critical statistic because it shows an overwhelming public support for whistleblowers and for protecting them.  I think that sends a very strong message to leaders that they need to take a stand that involves some backbone when it comes to actually protecting whistle-blowers.

    Facilitator: Are there examples of where whistle-blowers have had profound impacts?
    Interviewee: Yeah, so in the UK there has been a lot of headline news about whistle-blowers, particularly in health care and aged care area. There's a heart surgeon there named Raj Mattu who actually whistle-blew about hospital overcrowding and patients dying as a result of it.  So if you imagine a room that might be fitted up with critical care equipment for four patients, if you put five patients in there one of them might die and did. 

    So his case is very interesting because it illustrates the strength of public support for whistleblowers. It went on for over a decade and in fact his case eventually resulted in a payout of I think more than £10 million to him.  But that didn't even cover all of his costs - legal costs and such for the years that he spent and his lost revenue - income from the case. That being said, the fact that it was splashed all over the front page of the Daily Mail and the other newspapers I think has played a major role in turning the public attitude in the UK to support whistle-blowers.

    I mean people understand when their relatives are dying in the hallways of the emergency department how important it is to have a brave staff member who will step forward and actually speak about it.

    Facilitator: You discussed the commonalities across the UK, Iceland and Australia in terms of how the public perceive whistleblowing, how would you summarise the views of the Australian community towards whistle-blowers and protected disclosure regimes?

    Interviewee: So Australia's very interesting. Of course it comes from a traditional culture - possibly from originally its convict past of not dobbing and that I think has run pretty deep and strong. But it would appear in the instance of someone who's doing something very wrong that there has been, in a sense, a sea change about that culture and more of a willingness to actually separate yourself from the crowd and to recognise that people who stand up and reveal wrongdoing are people who should be protected and in some cases even rewarded.

     So we know that for example of the 66 per cent of respondents who identified as an employee of an organisation, 80 per cent also indicated that if they observed wrongdoing they'd feel personally obligated to report it to someone in their organisation.  That's a pretty good indication of a change in public attitude towards both whistle-blowers and whistleblowing themselves. 
    Facilitator: What do you think's been behind that change? What's driving it?
    Interviewee: I suspect that to some degree we have lost a lot of faith in the big institutions of our society, particularly over the last 10 or 15 years. So if you think about the scandals around the Catholic Church, even our heroes in sports - the Lance Armstrong, drug doping. So all of these things in a sense that were - people or institutions we held as dear and put on a pedestal have kind of come tumbling down, people's willingness to put up with the wrongdoing, to just sweep it under the rug, has diminished. 

    People are less willing to put up with it.  Especially because I think they've felt duped by, if you will, the lie.  I was very struck with one whistle-blower I interviewed - an Australian whistle-blower who worked in government and who said to me that the tipping point for him was what he referred to as the depth of the lie. 

    So when what he saw was actually happening in the organisation, the significant wrongdoing, compared to what was being said to the outside world, the media and such about what was going on in the organisation, became such a great disparity, the gap was so enormous, at some point he reached a tipping point and felt the need to actually take action on it.  That depth of lie I think is a recurring theme with a lot of whistle-blowers willing to step forward.

    Facilitator: What are some of the common challenges you've identified in encouraging people to speak up about corruption?
    Interviewee:  Well not surprisingly, people are very worried about retribution.  So whistle-blower protection schemes both in law and in practice have got to deal with that first and foremost.  There has to be protection for them. It's interesting that places like Bosnia - little Bosnia, we wouldn't necessarily think would be a world leader in whistleblower, they've actually got a piece of their legislation which they call pre-court protection, where a state whistle-blower can go to an authority to get a certificate saying they are a whistle-blower and this will prevent them from being sacked or demoted in their job for the period of the investigation.

    In fact that's actually starting to work. So there's one public case, two private cases and in all cases those whistle-blowers have actually been reinstated and they're being protected. So it is starting to work.  So retribution and fear of retribution is a big element. I think also there's a sense of - people don't always understand that there can be wrongdoing in an organisation that they know and love and people they see every day. 

    So I once viewed that the process a whistle-blower sometimes goes through is it's like the five stages of whistleblowing, it's sort of like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief.  I describe it in the first instance as there must be an honest mistake phase.  So this is - no one in your community would really abuse children and who would cover that up, of course not, there's been a big misunderstanding and we'll all sort it out on Monday.

    The second is, oh my god, these people are really doing something wrong phase. That's where you have to tell someone, but wait, you trust your large organisation. You think, oh there's always - they're always going to tell you to report wrongdoing and surely they'll stop it. 

    Third is that the organisation you're in may be complicit in the cover up and that's a real shock. You realise that the organisation that you've cared for and worked for for a decade is actually not going to support you in revealing it, but will support the wrongdoing for a variety of reasons. It might be the wrongdoing of the people at the top or it might be that people are afraid to have their reputation tarnished or whatever.

    The fourth is where you get attacks on the whistle-blower. The organisation in a sense there's something called mobbing which is where the organisation actually turns on the whistleblower. This is a very common situation. Where you've got whistleblower protection regimes that actually work in good investigative authorities, you can do things to mitigate that or stop it or if an organisation is serious about having internal systems that work.

    Then finally the whistleblower often goes through a breakdown when they feel very isolated and they become sometimes depressed. They often lose their house, they lose their spouse, it can be a really harrowing experience for them.  So the question that society has to ask is, how do we fix those last two phases to make sure that those don't happen.

    Facilitator: So do you have any advice for Victorian public sector agencies on how they can encourage people to speak up about corruption?
    Interviewee:  Yeah, I mean you've got to have internal systems that work and are real. You cannot have dead end labyrinths that are just there as decoys to actually capture the whistleblower and prevent them from actually saying effectively what's wrong and something being done. A word of warning to public authorities is if you think you don't need that, if you think, oh it's okay, it's just one guy, what will be able to be done about it, that's when whistleblowers go to the media.

    So they will turn anonymously to the media when they are really only quite desperate.  There's been some research done - 80, 90 plus per cent of whistleblower would rather blow the whistle internally given the opportunity. But they will go to the media in some cases if it's a terrible lie or terrible wrongdoing and then of course there's much greater organisational damage.

    So having systems that actually are real whistle-blowing systems internally are critical. Having a second line defence when those internal systems are not working, sometimes the corruption is all the way at the top. So providing in a sense as many avenues as possible to the whistle-blower to turn to including external agencies is absolutely critical for success in that.

    Facilitator: What other lessons have come from your research about how to implement strong organisational systems around whistle-blowing?
    Interviewee:  So you want to make it as easy and flexible for the whistle-blower as possible. That means that in a sense they're the customer. So you can't do things like say, well in an organisation of 2000 people there's one person who's the whistleblowing official and if you don't go to them then you're not a whistleblower and you're not protected. You have to be able to say, okay, you can go to your supervisor, you can go to the HR manager. You need basically to say, anyone who's in a position of responsibility and authority who is reasonable, that would be someone you could turn to.

    That's a really good example.  You need to provide anonymous channels. That's very important. Because at the end of the day there's so much focus on the whistleblowers but that's not where the focus should be. The focus should be on the wrongdoing. Not whether the whistleblower was right or wrong or whether they have a good HR record. Who cares about that?  What matters is the corruption. 

    Technology plays a wonderful role in that because now of course you can provide anonymity channels that allow the whistleblower to have a conversation with investigators either within the department or to external investigative agencies which provide, certainly confidentiality to the whistleblower and hopefully also anonymity. So then they're more inclined to come forward because they're less likely to get retribution in their views.

    The third thing that's very important is to actually provide an eyes wide open approach to the whistleblower going in and that is not just say, hey thanks for the data, now we're going to go act on it, but actually to provide support to them that explains this is the process that's going to happen and these are the things that you're likely to experience on the way. We don't want these bad things like retribution to happen to you or mobbing or being excluded at work, but you need to be prepared for the fact they will happen.

    Psychologically you've got to be prepared, you've got to line up getting all the data about wrongdoing before you do anything - say anything to anybody, because if a whistleblower actually has that preparation going in they will be such better shape to go through the process. I was asked to give some advice actually to a state or territory here in Australia about the implementation of their program and this was one of the most important things in conversation that came out about implementing it. It was to provide this level of comprehensive support and advice.

    Facilitator: Thank you Suelette and thank you for listening.  To hear more IBAC podcasts or get more information on Victoria's protected disclosure regime visit our website at www.ibac.vic.gov.au where you can also subscribe to IBAC insights to get the latest news and events, heads up on new reports, expert commentary, early research findings and information on conferences and events.