A report arising from one of the world’s largest whistleblowing studies calls for the creation of a joint central whistleblower authority to provide support to people who report wrongdoing in both the public and private sectors.
The report presents findings from the Whistle While You Work research project, conducted in collaboration with the ANU, RMIT University, Griffith University, the University of Sydney and the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, as well as partner and supporter organisations across Australia and New Zealand.
The Clean as a Whistle report says “whistleblowing is a vital pillar in the integrity, governance and compliance systems of every organisation and healthy, corruption free institutions across society as a whole.”
But it says for the benefits of whistleblowing to be more widely realised further regulatory reform is needed, including the creation of a central whistleblower authority.
It argues that while Australia’s public sector whistleblowing laws have led the way globally since 1994 in requiring agencies to establish procedures around whistleblowing, Australia remains without a central authority despite recommendations as far back as 1994.
A 2018 international study of jurisdictions including the US, Belgium, Israel, Korea and the Netherlands found that Australia’s Commonwealth public sector is the only one without an independent or specialist whistleblowing agency to investigate retaliation or support whistleblowers.
In comparison, the Dutch Whistleblowing Authority provides free psychological care, a move which the Israeli Ombudsman is set to follow as part of the development of a more holistic approach to whistleblower protection.
The Clean as a Whistle report says “there is a clear case for a joint authority” as this would provide for efficient use of resources and expertise and would cover any overlap of public and private sector wrongdoing.
“Advice on safe reporting, protection, managing investigations and legal remedies, including employment remedies obtained from the Fair Work Ombudsman, Fair Work Commission or Federal Court, is also likely to be the same in both contexts,” it says.
The authority would act as a clearing house for disclosures, investigate non-criminal reprisals and take matters to tribunals and courts on behalf of whistleblowers who are facing reprisals.
More whistleblowing in public sector
The research includes data from 699 organisations and 17,778 individuals in 46 public and private bodies, and points to ways of implementing better practice at both organisational and whole of government levels.
“Our aims are to help maximise the role of whistleblowing in organisational integrity and performance, and ensure fair outcomes for whistleblowers, by assisting organisations with their processes and informing guidance and new regulatory obligations. To identify factors which enable positive managerial responses to whistleblowing and inform better procedures, systems and policy,” the report says.
The research found a similarity between public sector and private sector whistleblowing though the rate was slightly higher in the public (74 per cent) than the private sector (69 per cent).
The most common type of wrongdoing reported by both managers and employees related to bullying or victimisation, followed by unfair employment practices, discrimination or harassment, improper use of resources, personal problems like alcohol or substance abuse impacting work and defective or incompetent decisions.
It found at least 41 per cent of cases resulted in positive change, according to employee reporters.
Around half employees who observed wrongdoing reported it, but around 30 per cent of cases of perceived wrongdoing were not being reported.
It also found little variation in the prevalence of wrongdoing between the Australian and New Zealand public sectors.
“Dealing with employee wrongdoing concerns may be challenging and difficult, but our research confirms its fundamental role, every day, in maintaining integrity and assisting accountability and performance in the institutions on which society depends,” the report says.
It says the importance of whistleblowing is being recognised in new laws and rules both in Australia and around the world, with the International Standards Organisation developing the world’s first whistleblowing management system standard.
The report includes five main steps to better whistleblower policy and practice encompassing assessment of disclosures, public interest, regulation, support for whistleblowers and roles, responsibilities and oversight.
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