INTERVIEWER: Hello and welcome to IBAC’s first in a series of podcasts. IBAC is Victoria’s anti-corruption agency and it’s our role to expose, investigate and prevent public sector corruption and police misconduct. Today we’re joined by Professor AJ Brown from Griffith University in Queensland. Professor Brown has done extensive research on the subject of whistleblowing. Thank you for talking to us today.
PROFESSOR AJ BROWN: It’s a pleasure.
INTERVIEWER: In some form or other, whistleblowing legislation has existed for around 20 to 30 years in Australia. Can you take us back to those first days, what was the original reason for recognising and then protecting whistleblowers?
PROFESSOR AJ BROWN: Well the original reason was really the evidence that people like police officers knew about corruption in various inquiries but didn’t speak up about it. So similarly around the world there was lots of evidence that people weren’t speaking up about serious wrong doing that was then being exposed in later inquiries. The theory was that people weren’t speaking up because they were too scared because of the potential reprisals. So a lot of that first legislation was actually about trying to make it safer. Since then we have actually learnt a lot. That’s one big element one big aim of this type of legislation still but since then we’ve actually learnt a lot of about the many other things that it actually takes to get people to speak up as well.
INTERVIEWER: Is it becoming more important to protect people who speak out about wrong doing?
PROFESSOR AJ BROWN: It’s no more or less important than it’s ever been but it’s certainly being recognised as being more important. Once upon a time in the not too distant past, the whole idea of a whistleblower was very contentious. It almost was synonymous with just simply with a dobber or somebody who was trying to do the right thing but they were pretty strange. These days we actually recognise that almost anybody could end up being a whistleblower depending on the circumstances and depending on what they are confronted with. And the value of whistleblowing and the role it plays in exposing wrong doing of all sorts is much, much better recognised.
I think the reality on the ground especially in recent years is a lot more organisations are putting in a lot more effort into protecting people who make disclosures internally and IBAC and the Ombudsman have over about the last 10 years and since IBAC’s creation have taken quite a professional approach to those systems.
What’s more effective is the proactive management, the prevention of reprisals, making sure people are handled better in the first place and that investigations are done properly and that’s all improving and that’s actually the key to most protection. It’s the ex post facto trying to fix the damage to people’s lives after they’ve been mismanaged or the allegations been mishandled, it is much, much more difficult and there’s a range of improvements that need to made to those sorts of mechanisms.
INTERVIEWER: In late 2014, our research found a quarter of surveyed public service organisation weren’t meeting their obligations around protected disclosures. Does this surprise you? Do you think it’s true across the broader public sector?
PROFESSOR AJ BROWN: It is pretty true, it’s actually getting better, a major piece of research we did across several states and the Commonwealth about 10 years ago showed about a half of the agencies that were meant to have procedures and policies in place actually didn’t have anything. So compared to the state of play then across a number of jurisdictions, the situation in Victoria today is better than that. But you would hope that was the case. But I think it’s confirmation that across a wide range of any big group of organisations you will get enormous diversity in terms of the difference in the level of management commitment and understanding and you will get everything from agencies that are putting in a big effort and really understand through to other agencies or councils that the senior management is not getting the message. So I think there is good and bad in that there are always good lessons to learn from the agencies that are putting in a big effort. And usually empirically we know they are getting better results. But the fact that some agencies still find it so difficult to do something as basic as have a set of procedures in existence, even whether or not they are implementing them is just a confirmation about why we need a regime, why we need IBAC and the Ombudsman, why these things just can’t be left to chance or left to the managers to manage.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve mentioned procedures and processes there, is there anything else that organisations need to do to encourage staff to speak out?
PROFESSOR AJ BROWN: A million things. What exists in terms of policies and procedures on paper, that’s just the beginning. There’s something wrong if they don’t exist. In fact even in some agencies people do some very good work to protect whistleblowers even when there are no procedures. And it actually really comes down to the coal face to a combination of how good the management is and the different levels of managers are in an agency and understanding they’re responsible for the welfare of everybody, including and especially those who speak up and not shirking away from their responsibility to handle hard and difficult, complex challenges very often. But especially also to senior management and to internal auditors, governance professionals, protected disclosure coordinators, ethical standards units – I mean those people all play a vital, practical role in all the individual cases of actually just making sure that sensible decisions are made and people don’t sit on their hands and wait for problems to emerge in terms of a relationship between a whistleblower and other work colleagues or managers or whatever, not waiting for problems to emerge before they actually have a strategy for managing the whole situation. So really it’s what happens in agencies at the coal face at a practical level which is the most important.
INTERVIEWER: Looking at it from the perspective of the organisation, why is it in their interest to support people to speak up?
PROFESSOR AJ BROWN: Contrary to the assumption that a whistleblower equals trouble, you know the complaints equal conflict and that it all equals trouble, the reality is that people inside the organisation speak up about wrong doing do a number of things. They work as an early warning system, they provide important information, even complaints that are about extraneous things that aren’t about serious corrupt conduct are information that should be useful to management about issues and problems about the health of the organisation and what’s going on. So the information is actually vitally important and useful to the management of an organisation. That’s sort of at the front end of organisations – if they do have problems, get on top of those problems themselves and sort them out rather than have it splattered around in the newspapers or have IBAC or anybody else come in and sort it all out for them. So it’s in organisations interest to get that information first themselves and then handle it well because they’ve got the biggest chance of staying on top of those issues and sorting out whatever they are. And at the end of the day, if organisations don’t handle it all well, then the risk of their reputation are going to unfold accordingly. And so there’s both positive reasons for recognising that you’ve got to handle whistleblowers well. As well as serious repercussions, if you don’t. When it comes down to it, it really is the tone that senior managers in organisations want to set for what people understand their organisations to stand for, on what the values are and what the general conduct is that people expect in that organisation. People’s perceptions of that internally and externally are very much shaped by peoples’ assessment of, or about how well people will be treated if they speak up with their concerns.
INTERVIEWER: Should Victorians still feel comfortable blowing the whistle?
PROFESSOR AJ BROWN: Well the key thing about speaking up about wrong doing in any situation is that, it’s one thing if you’re just exercising your right to complain through an established process where the risks of reprisal or detriment to you for doing so are relatively low, everybody should be able to exercise that right. And by and large people can exercise those rights. The thing that’s difficult about whistleblowing is that it’s very dependent on the circumstances within an organisation. There’s no one whistleblowing scenario. People will raise concerns about all manner of different types of wrong doing in different situations and the risks of conflict and problems. Unforseen problems then befalling them really depends on a whole range of things, who they’ve blown the whistle to, what it’s about, who’s implicated or compromised, who would feel defensive about it, who might be potentially embarrassed, a whole range of things. So what’s really important is that when people are thinking about speaking up about a concern, that they don’t be deterred from thinking whether or not they should speak up about it. But that they should think about what’s going to be the most effective way to raise this concern, to whom, who can I trust, what’s the path I should take, how can I just try and turn this into an issue that I can manage, even when I’m really, really angry about something or at the last, you know, it’s the last straw or something’s finally triggered my concern to the point where I’m going to do something about it and I’m almost like a kamikaze type of whistleblower and that’s really the difficult thing. And that’s where in different situations, in different organisations, the role of the people who will receive complaints and disclosures from managers through to internal auditor or whoever is so crucial because they’re the people who will influence the answers to many of those questions. If In doubt then people should be able to approach IBAC or the Ombudsman’s office as well. And sometimes people will approach their own supervisor and often that’s the best person they can approach.
INTERVIEWER: You said that the decision to speak out depends on circumstances. Are there any common barriers that all people face?
PROFESSOR AJ BROWN: Well there’s really no common barriers other than we know that the thing that most people are most concerned about is whether anybody is listening, will anybody do something about this, does anybody want to know and so that’s really the key is that you’ve got to work on the basis if it’s serious enough for you to be concerned about then you should be able to find somebody else that you think will want to know and it’s finding that person so that then there’s a chance of it being put on a positive path or the best chance of it being put on a positive path most quickly and that’s really the key thing as well as thinking about well, where is my support going to come from in this, you know, how can I actually help make sure that what could be a difficult process is one that I am geared up to try and get through as best I can, again it’s a question of those supports should be available, people should expect those supports to be available, especially if they are a public servant.
INTERVIEWER: AJ, thanks so much for having a talk with me today. Hopefully this has helped encourage some of our listeners to take the important step of speaking out against corruption.
PROFESSOR AJ BROWN: Absolute pleasure.
INTERVIEWER: That was Professor AJ Brown, Professor of Public Policy and Law at Griffith University. Of course if you want more information about whistleblowing or how to make a protected disclosure, please go to www.ibac.vic.gov.au