Managers are suffering from “blind spots” about whistleblowers and taking action which may be interpreted as payback against staff who report corruption or misconduct, a report says.
The NSW Ombudsman’s annual report on whistleblower legislation, tabled in parliament last week, says 1,166 reports about the conduct of NSW public sector staff or organisations were made in 2017-18.
A total of 324 reports were made internally to public authorities and the rest were made to the state’s corruption watchdog or external investigating authorities.
Most allegations relate to corrupt conduct, maladministration, waste and misconduct.
Ombudsman Michael Barnes said public sector employees play a vital role in building trust in government.
“Many of our investigations were triggered by valuable information from insiders,” he said.
However, “In recent years, we have seen cases where experienced and senior managers have taken overt actions, or have been complicit in overt actions, that an objective assessment would see as detrimental to the reporter.”
Such action has included downgrading a whistleblower’s role, cutting their responsibility or reducing the number of staff who report directly to them.
There were also cases where whistleblowers resigned because of a failure to make them feel safe or support them in the workplace after a report was made.
The first Australian laws protecting people making public interest disclosures were introduced thirty years ago after whistleblowers inside Queensland police faced reprisals for exposing corruption that led to the Fiztgerald Inquiry.
Legislation encouraging the disclosure of wrongdoing, and protecting public officials who do so, is now in place in all states and territories.
The Public Interest Disclosures Act is designed to encourage public officials to report serious wrongdoing such as corrupt conduct or maladministration in the NSW public sector.
It’s illegal under the act to take reprisal for a public interest disclosure (PID) and whistleblowers can seek compensation if this occurs.
However, the report notes it’s rare to find evidence that adverse impacts alleged by whistleblowers can be traced back to an act of deliberate reprisal.
“We are more likely to find evidence that suggests the public authority has failed to realise their obligations in preventing harm to a reporter,” the ombudsman said.
“Many matters appear to be a result of managers failing to follow procedures – possibly as a result of their blind spots. Rather than being the result of active decisions, they are mistakes or omissions that, in retrospect, are negligent.
“We have seen cases where it appears managers have had ‘blind spots’ and simply failed to appreciate that their actions may be perceived as a reprisal.”
The report says managers can experience a range of reactions when a PID is made, including annoyance, resentment, affront, offence, humiliation, anxiety or embarrassment.
There can also be a tendency to “shoot the messenger” or frame the whistleblower as a trouble maker.
Managers may also be more likely to push back against PIDs that pose a threat to their expertise or area of responsibility – a reaction known as “motivated skepticism”.
The ombudsman says whistleblower laws are based on the assumption that senior staff of public authorities will comply with their obligations to manage the reports and the people who make them, including reducing the risk of reprisals and making sure there are adequate support mechanisms for whistleblowers.
The Ombudsman’s Office provides PID training for staff and management of public authorities in NSW.
What managers can do to support whistleblowers
- Make sure staff have a clear understanding of what constitutes wrongdoing
- Have an effective escalation system in place
- Have regular performance management of PID procedures
- Make it as simple as possible to receive and assess a report of wrongdoing
- Establish PID coordinators, an assessment panel and an advice line
Whistleblowing at a glance
- NSW public and investigating authorities get an average of 788 PIDs a year
- 24 per cent of NSW government employees witnessed misconduct or wrongdoing at work in 2018 and 66 per cent of those said they reported it
- Tip-offs accounted for 47 per cent of frauds detected in in NSW in 2016
- Over the last three years 86 per cent of reports reviewed by the Ombudsman’s office related to allegations of corrupt conduct, maladministration, waste and misconduct
- 684 PID investigations were recieved by the Commonwealth Ombudsman in 2016-17
- The NT Commissioner for Public Interest received 46 reports
- The Queensland Ombudsman received 798 PIDS
- Victoria’s Independent Broadbses Anti-corruption Commission asses 579 disclosures
You can access the full report here.
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