Whistleblower welfare headlines IBAC's Protected Disclosure Coordinators Forum

Katie Miller's welcome address to the 2019 Protected Disclosure Coordinators Forum

IBAC held its annual Protected Disclosure Coordinators Forum on 11 June, with a focus on the importance of safeguarding the welfare of all those involved in the process of making disclosures.

IBAC convenes the forum to enable protected disclosure coordinators and other interested public sector employees to be informed, discuss best practice, and gain access to people and resources for addressing questions about the protected disclosure regime.  

Opening the Forum, IBAC's Engagement team manager Olivia Kings noted the theme was based on feedback from protected disclosure coordinators.

'We asked protected disclosure coordinators what they would be most interested in hearing about in community of practice events and managing discloser welfare was cited most often,' she said. 'This can be a difficult area for protected disclosure coordinators to navigate and sharing experiences is a valuable way of building capability.'

IBAC Deputy Commissioner Katie Miller spoke about the key role coordinators play in how protected disclosers experience the public sector integrity system.

Protected disclosure coordinators confidentially receive and handle reports of improper conduct from their fellow employees or members of the public, and ensure they receive support and welfare protection while the allegations are assessed or investigated.

'You’ll be the first person they will voice their concern to,' she told the coordinators. 'You are an important part of the protected disclosure system but, of course, you alone cannot resolve all of the anxiety and fear that a protected discloser experiences.'

Deputy Commissioner Miller noted that as IBAC reviewed its policies and procedures on welfare management over recent months, it became apparent that the people who make the protected disclosure system work may need support and guidance as well.

'Coordinating disclosures and supporting people is part of what you do but that doesn't mean it isn't stressful, and your welfare is just as important as that of witnesses, disclosers and subjects,' she said. 'I would argue that your welfare is, in fact, most important because, as the adage goes, you have to care for yourself before you can care for others.'

The keynote address was delivered by Warren Day, executive director of assessment and intelligence at the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC). He highlighted changes ASIC has been implementing over the last five years on how it engages with whistleblowers and outlined the new regime of protections for disclosers in the financial sector that commence on 1 July 2019.

Mr Day also discussed some aspects of research being undertaken at Griffith University by Professor AJ Brown on whistleblowing, which is supported by ASIC and IBAC along with a number of other integrity bodies in Australia and New Zealand.

'We know the type of wrongdoing is similar across the public and private sectors,' he said. 'And that early intervention and assessment of risk is imperative for reducing repercussions for disclosers.'

Mr Day's address was followed by a practical session on managing discloser welfare by Erin Barlow, Assistant Ombudsman at the Victorian Ombudsman, and the Department of Health and Human Services' manager of corporate integrity Kerrie McNicol.

Next up, IBAC's principal lawyer Philip Hill updated the Forum on legislative changes to the Victorian protected disclosure system coming into effect on 1 January 2020. The major implications he noted were that with its a lower threshold for improper conduct, the reform is expected to lead to more disclosures; engender more interaction between IBAC and other investigation bodies; provide more flexibility in handling disclosures by IBAC and other agencies; and institute changes in confidentiality obligations.

Mr Hill said that IBAC is updating its policies and procedures and will be providing fresh guidance materials in the next couple of months, and that the changes are not retrospective. While Ms Kings reminded attendees that IBAC will hold a community of practice session later this year dedicated to the legislative change, with updated tools for protected disclosure coordinators.

The half-day event wrapped up with an interview of high-profile whistleblower Toni Hoffman, who was head nurse at Bundaberg Base Hospital’s intensive care unit when she raised concerns about senior surgeon Dr Jayant Patel. Ms Hoffman was made a Member of the Order of Australia and received the Australian of the Year 2006 Local Hero award as a result, and is now a lecturer in nursing at Central Queensland University.

She spoke about efforts by her nursing colleagues and herself to raise the alarm about the abnormally high rates of death and surgical injury in Dr Patel’s patients, noting that she had contacted 14 groups, including the police and the coroner, over two years before reaching out to a member of parliament and a journalist.

Answering a question by an audience member, Ms Hoffman said a financial fund for whistleblowers would be helpful but it would also be useful if disclosers could access wellbeing programs because cases like hers can stretch over many years.

'In that time, everyone else forgot about what had happened but I couldn’t forget, I still had to give evidence,' she said. 'People said you should have got over it by now. But it’s not a matter of something ending and then getting over it because it’s all ongoing. So some really more practical measures for supporting public interest disclosures or whistleblowing would definitely be beneficial.'

Ms Hoffman noted that whistleblowers would not be needed if we could institute robust organisations, with good integrity.

'It wouldn’t be up to one person to be the ethical or moral referee for society in that case,' she said. 'If we could only look at what we do from a rational point of view and assess our outcomes and learn from our mistakes.'

'People in Bundaberg don’t like the fact that when people hear the town's name, they think something bad happened here. But I don’t think we should be saying "look what happened here" in a negative way. We should be saying "look what those nurses did to protect those patients" instead. It should be a point of pride that nurses were willing to risk everything to protect their patients.'

IBAC's Engagement team convened a protected disclosure community of practice in April 2018 to facilitate knowledge sharing and capacity building among protected disclosure coordinators. Other interested public sector employees are also invited to network, share their knowledge and update skills and expertise.

The protected disclosure community of practice is overseen by an organising committee that runs several events each year. IBAC chairs the committee, which has representatives from Victorian Ombudsman, Victoria Police, and protected disclosure coordinators drawn from state departments and local councils.

For more information about the community of practice, contact engage@ibac.vic.gov.au.