1 June 2011

The date has a romantic association for the British.  It commemorates a naval battle in 1794, the first by organised  fleets of similarly armed warships.  Although the Royal Navy was the apparent victor, the French grain convoy it sought to interdict, completed evaded capture.

It is a bit like the struggle against corruption.  There are enthusiastic noises,  much trumpeting of action, but the target is elusive and continues to fight another day!  There is a continuing need for refined tactics to increase effectiveness.

Yesterday an additional weapon was added to the New South Wales armory.  It has a new body to encourage whistleblowers.  ICAC (the Independent Commission Against Corruption) announced that a group of senior agency officials will support whistleblowers who often feel so discouraged or intimidated that they do not pass information to those who can take effective action.

“ICAC recognises the key role whistleblowers play in exposing public sector corruption and is keen to ensure that they are afforded the guidance and support they need.”  ICAC experience is that reporting misconduct, particularly in one’s own agency, takes great courage.  Many have insufficient confidence in protection policies  to “blow the whistle”.

The evaluation published last week of OECD members’ commitment to the Anti Bribery Convention made frequent references to the effectiveness of whistleblower protection. New Zealand has been repeatedly criticised for the perceived inadequacy of the Protected Disclosures Act, largely restricted in application to public sector agencies and the less than complete confidentiality afforded to whistleblowers.

The reality is that only a small percentage of informed complainants seek the formal protections of  whistleblowing regimes. Where data is gathered,  jurisdictions report that a minority of complaints flow through hotline processes that promise anonymity. Most employees share information with senior colleagues in whom they have trust. Facilities like Crimebusters have a profile but are not a preferred resource.

A willingness to establish confidentiality frameworks provides some assurance that agencies take integrity complaints seriously.  Where there is trust there is more likely to be a preparedness to risk the fallout that is all too often associated with whistleblowing.  The obligation of New Zealand State sector agencies to have a protected disclosure policy and to publish it (and periodically republish it) was emphasised when the State Services Commission reported the results of the 2010 Integrity and Conduct survey results last August.  It also recommended eight actions that agencies take to strengthen integrity, based on the survey findings.

All guns must be brought to bear on unethical conduct if we are to maintain public trust in the State services and confidence in government.