New protection rules needed to maximise whistleblowing

Professor A J Brown

The leaders of the world’s largest current research project into whistleblowing have called for comprehensive, evidence-based law reform to maximise the benefits of whistleblowing for corporate governance and public integrity — but warn that achieving this may require a change of mindset for some policymakers, organisations and the media.

Speaking at the launch of the Australian Research Council project Whistling While They Work 2: Improving managerial responses to whistleblowing in public and private sector organisations, project leader Professor A J Brown said there was broad consensus that new laws and standards were needed to support whistleblowing, but as yet little guidance on what form they should take.

“As a result, given the negativity that dominates much current debate over how to respond to problems of corporate culture, regulatory capacity and whistleblower mistreatment, we risk missing some of the greatest opportunities for solving these issues,” Professor Brown said.

Clear guidance

“Perhaps the single greatest opportunity is the high proportion of Australian companies who already know their own people can be the best and fastest way to find out about significant problems of wrongdoing or culture — but who, like all organisations worldwide, lack clear guidance on the tools and systems needed to properly encourage and protect whistleblowing in practice.”

“The same is true of regulators — it is too easy to criticise corporate leaders, attack regulators and paint a picture of whistleblowers as overwhelmingly ignored and mistreated, when we know that in both government and business, there are positive efforts and lessons, not just negative ones.”

“Given the extent of consensus on the need for new legal and governance standards, it’s time to turn our attention to what those standards need to contain, to best support internal, regulatory and public whistleblowing — rather than defeat ourselves by assuming that organisations and regulators can never get it right, or that all whistleblowers are destined to suffer, no matter what.”

Best practice

The Whistling While They Work 2 research project is focused on identifying current and potential best practice in organisational management of whistleblowing, based on comprehensive evidence drawn from the widest possible spectrum of Australian and New Zealand organisations.

The Australian-led project stands to be the largest in the world to date, and is the first to attempt systematic comparison of organisational experience in maximising whistleblowing, in a consistent way across the public and private sectors, and between countries.

Led by researchers from Griffith University, Australian National University, University of Sydney and Victoria University of Wellington, the project is supported by 22 regulatory and professional organisations including the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC),
CPA Australia, Governance Institute of Australia, Australian Institute of Company Directors
and Transparency International Australia, along with the Commonwealth Ombudsman and leading public integrity agencies in all states, including all state Ombudsmen.

In April-May, every Australian public sector agency (federal, state and local) and all of Australia’s 31,000 public unlisted and large proprietary companies are being formally approached by these partners and encouraged to participate in the project.

An equivalently broad approach to public and private sector organisations is also underway in New Zealand, where partners include the New Zealand State Services Commission and Ombudsman.

Historic first

“This is the first time in history that integrity and regulatory authorities are known to have combined to approach every organisation in one country — let alone two — to get behind improved processes for effective disclosure and action against risks of public interest organisational wrongdoing, on such a comprehensive scale,” Professor Brown said.

There are two phases to the research — a threshold Survey of Organisational Processes and Procedures, which takes approx. 20-30 minutes and is open to all organisations, from now until June; and a more comprehensive survey of staff, managers and systems in those organisations that elect to participate in depth, called Integrity@WERQ.

Individual responses from organisations will be confidential to the university researchers, and participant responses in Integrity@WERQ will be anonymous.

“However, aggregated results at jurisdictional, sectoral and organisational levels will provide unprecedented evidence of what is currently working, and why, or why not, in the encouragement and management of whistleblowing within organisations.”

“This is the evidence that organisations need to help them get it right, and law reformers need to know what standards should be set in new or reformed legislation, or elsewhere, including clearer and better resourced roles for independent regulators,” Professor Brown said.

“For example, the research team has already resolved to place the results behind a proposal to write the replacement to the Australian Standard on Whistleblower Protection Programs (AS 8004), which was published in 2003 but is currently withdrawn.”

Other speakers at the launch, hosted by Governance Institute of Australia, included:

John McMillan AO, Acting New South Wales Ombudsman

Warren Day, Australian Securities & Investments Commission (Regional Commissioner — Victoria; Head, Office of the Whistleblower)

Brian Hood, former Company Secretary, Note Printing Australia (Whistleblower)

Judith Fox, Governance Institute of Australia

All organisations with more than 10 employees, based or with significant operations in Australia or New Zealand, are encouraged to help tackle some of the most vital but challenging issues of corporate culture, public integrity and social responsibility in the world today, by visiting the project website and completing the threshold survey: