An audit of whistleblowing at six NSW councils has found there may be cultural barriers to reporting serious wrongdoing in local government.
Barriers could include a lack of trust in ‘head office’, an ‘us versus them’ mentality and a culture of not ‘dobbing in a mate’, the NSW Ombudsman’s report released on Monday says.
The audit, undertaken to identify whether local government culture, systems or practices could be contributing to a failure by staff to make public interest disclosures (PIDs), highlights the need for local councils to ensure whistleblowing is encouraged, identified and reported.
It contains the findings of audits on six local councils, none of which were found to have received any PIDs for three years between 2018 and 2020.
Overall, only that 66 per cent, or 85 of NSW’s 128 councils received a PID between 2018 -2020. Fifty two of those councils employed more than 150 staff.
The data also indicates that local councils are less likely than universities, local health districts and state government agencies of a similar size to receive whistleblower complaints.
“The willingness of public servants and employees at all levels to report serious wrongdoing is essential to maintaining the integrity of the public sector. In all six audited councils, however, we found that there may be cultural barriers to reporting,” Ombudsman Paul Miller says.
Agencies and agency heads have a range of obligations under the PID Act, including having a whistleblower policy and at least one officer designated to receive PIDs.
The audits assessed whether the audited councils were complying with their legal obligations, and whether the way in which they did was conducive to a strong reporting culture and practice.
The report says some councils showed “positive or improved” PID practices. But invesigations also revealed cultural barriers to reporting, limited staff awareness and lack of training and information.
“We found that all the councils could make improvements to their reporting culture and PID practices,” the report concludes.
Mr Miller has urged all councils and other NSW agencies to review the report, which he says may contain material relevant to their organisations.
“Although limited to these 6 councils, there are lessons in this report more generally for the local government sector in how to better promote positive PID handling practices and reporting culture,” he says.
The report makes several recommendations, including
- Assessing whistleblowing culture via a staff survey
- developing tailored PID training and awareness programs
- boosting the number of PID officers
- making sure there’s a range of accessible reporting mechanisms
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