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News — Common mistakes when dealing with whistleblowers

The NSW public sector may score highly when it comes to dealing with whistleblowers, but a new report by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) reveals that its officials still make mistakes and there’s room for improvement.

The NSW public sector ranks third out of 19 Australian public, private and non-government sectors studied by the Whistling While They Work research project. Only the Commonwealth government, followed by the Queensland government, had stronger overall whistleblowing systems.

The research project also found that the NSW public sector ranked seventh out of 19 when it came to supporting whistleblowers and addressing detrimental action taken against them.

Yet, in its report, titled Corruption and integrity in the NSW public sector: an assessment of current trends and events, NSW ICAC says a common mistake made by agencies is not incorporating whistleblower protection measures into an investigation.

It says this happens, for example, when whistleblower management does not form part of the investigation plan (or there is no investigation plan) or the agency wrongly assumes its contracted investigator will comply with the Public Interest Disclosures Act 1994 and/or take steps to protect the whistleblower.

Another common error is failing to put someone in charge of liaising with the complainant in cases where there is no formal investigation. ‘Agencies still have an obligation to protect complainants even if they decide not to commence or complete an investigation,’ says NSW ICAC.

Officials have sometimes inadvertently identified the complainant in the course of the investigation or the report. This can happen, for instance, if specific phrases or descriptions used by the complainant are unnecessarily mentioned.

Some have also failed to protect complainants whose report may not meet the technical definition of a PID. ‘Most staff will not be aware of the finer points of the Public Interest Disclosures Act 1994 and will judge management on the fairness rather than the legality of their decisions,’ says NSW ICAC.

In addition, some agencies have taken no further action on a matter just because NSW ICAC chose not to investigate it. NSW ICAC has limited resources and can only investigate a small percentage of matters reported to it. ‘However, agencies are usually free to undertake their own investigations.’

NSW ICAC’s advice to agencies includes:

  • Ensure contractors and subcontractors have satisfactory internal reporting channels or provide them with access to the agency’s channels. Otherwise, include whistleblowing obligations in your contracts with suppliers.
  • Provide customers with access to your reporting channels and train your frontline staff on how to recognise and escalate a complaint.
  • Ensure the investigation plan describes how to protect and manage any complainant or witness.
  • Allow complainants to remain anonymous, but contactable by using pseudonyms.
  • Treat complainant reports as just one aspect of a broader range of information and intelligence.
  • Appoint a staff member to be the dedicated support officer for complainants or witnesses.
  • Ensure senior management provide overt directions on protecting of complainants.
  • Consider training specific staff in complaint handling skills.
  • Ensure that internal audit and management review recommendations are monitored and implemented.

Strongly discourage complainants from making comments in public or on social media. Some complaints are deliberately false or broadcast to damage the accused person.

Material published in Governance Directions is copyright and may not be reproduced without permission.

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