6 June 2013

Bradley Manning possibly divides opinion on the social value of whistleblowers. With his court martial now underway, the US Army’s view of his disclosures through Wikileaks will be widely reported. (There must be some sort linkage with today’s 69th anniversary of “D Day” – the Normandy Invasion.)

In the New Zealand setting, leaking official information to the media is never an appropriate action.  Where something is “going wrong” in an agency, the recourse is the Protected Disclosures Act.   The challenge however may well be that a large percentage of people working in an agency are unfamiliar with the approved framework for whistleblowing.  And therein lies a story….

The writers of the Novoplay report released this week indicate a disregard for the Cabinet Manual imperative  that “…advice given to Ministers must be honest, impartial, and comprehensive …”  Despite its careful wording, the report suggests that there was a pattern of substantial and repeated misinformation being referred to Ministers. The misleading nature of this information was recognised by numerous others – who apparently did nothing about it.  Why was that?

The State Services code of conduct specifies a duty to act lawfully and objectively – that is one of the standards under the heading of being responsible.  State servants are expected to report wrongdoing.  “Understanding the Code of Conduct –  Guidance for State Servants” explains this provision.

We are aware that public trust is influenced by the perception that the public has of our organisation. This means responding objectively if we become aware of any unlawful activities in our organisation. We appreciate the importance of modelling the standards set by the code of conduct and taking responsibility to support our organisation take decisive action when we learn that standards are being breached…”

 So what happened with those State servants in agencies who apparently were aware that all was not well, that Ministers were being misinformed about the suitability of Novopay for implementation?

Were they aware of the Protected Disclosures Act?  Was their agency policy, and its procedures for reporting wrongdoing, accessible to them? Did they know about the code?  Was the meaning explained to them?  And if they were unaware, then why?

Some obvious obligations have been inadequately fulfilled.  Departmental chief executives have statutory responsibilities “…to ensure that all employees maintain proper standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest…”  Agencies and their employees “…must comply with any standards…”  The Cabinet Manual reinforces that “…Employees in the State sector must act with a spirit of service to the community and meet high standards of integrity and conduct in everything they do. In particular, employees must be fair, impartial, responsible, and trustworthy…”

And what of the Protected Disclosure Act requirement that information about agencies’ internal procedures “… must be published widely in the organisation and must be republished at regular intervals…”

The primary recommendation that the State Services Commissioner made to all agencies as a consequence of the 2010 State Services Integrity Survey of compliance with the code, was that agencies should promote awareness of the Protected Disclosures Act.

I wonder if anyone has reviewed what was done as a consequence in agencies embroiled in the Novopay affair?