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Research reveals holes in whistleblowing processes in public sector

05 July 2017

An academic who worked on a ground-breaking trans-Tasman study into the strength of whistleblowing processes in the public sector says New Zealand law needs to be strengthened to facilitate whistleblowing in the workplace.

The study, the first phase of the Whistling While They Work 2 research project, ranks the strength of whistleblowing practices in 65 New Zealand public sector organisations and many more Australian organisations. It provides the first benchmarks for organisations from both countries to assess strengths and weaknesses of their processes for employee-reported wrongdoing.

Victoria University’s Associate Professor Michael Macaulay, one of the academics who worked on the project, says it has revealed some weaknesses.

“The results indicate there are likely issues at an agency level, possibly an inconsistent approach to dealing with misconduct issues.

“The study also seems to suggest there may be weaknesses with the system as a whole, particularly at a legislative level. For example, it raises questions around the usability and the relevance of the New Zealand Protected Disclosures Act, which is designed to help agencies effectively and safely facilitate whistleblowing in the workplace.”

Mr Macaulay says the high participation rate of the public sector in the project “confirms the importance our public sector leaders are placing on whistleblowing and integrity issues”.

“Recently we’ve seen how dealing with protected disclosures is crucial to the integrity of our public sector. This research will give us the information we need to strengthen processes around whistleblowing and mitigate against some of the problems,” he says.

Project leader, Professor A J Brown, says robust whistleblowing procedures are a highly effective way to uncover wrongdoing or problems in the workplace, but in organisations around the world “there is no clear guidance on tools and systems to encourage and protect whistleblowing in the workplace”.

“But through our research, we’re aiming to improve managerial responses to whistleblowing in the workplace and maximise its benefits for corporate governance and integrity,” he says.

The project is led by Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy and includes researchers from the University of Sydney, Australian National University, Victoria University of Wellington, Australian Securities and Investments Commission, CPA Australia and the New Zealand State Services Commission.

'Heart and soul' of the project

Alongside the release of the study was the New Zealand launch of the second phase of the research project, the Integrity@WERQ survey, which is open to all public, private and not-for-profit organisations.

The next survey is what Mr Macaulay describes as the “heart and soul of the project” as it asks employers in both New Zealand and Australia to survey staff using the Workplace Experiences and Relationships Questionnaire (WERQ).

“This survey will explore at a significant depth across all types of organisations, the problems they face, their current processes and outcomes, and what innovations they’re using to respond to wrongdoing concerns from staff. It will also highlight organisations’ ethical climate, leadership and psychological safety around whistleblowing.”

Last updated on the 16th September 2019