International whistleblowing conference brings together the best brains

Rating: 
5

David Hutton – July 29, 2011

Founded in 2009, the International Whistleblowing Research Network (IWRN) hosts periodic conferences that provide a unique opportunity for researchers in this field to meet, compare notes and learn from colleagues around the world.

The network’s third conference was held in June at Middlesex University in North London, hosted by Professor David Lewis. Thanks to the generosity of FAIR’s supporters and the conference organizers I was able to attend this year, to bring a Canadian perspective, to build invaluable contacts with colleagues abroad, and above all to learn.

A new network for NGOs

This conference also provided the catalyst for another important, perhaps historic event spearheaded by our sister charity in the UK, Public Concern at Work: this was the inaugural meeting of an international whistleblower network for civil society. While the conference is primarily for academics, this new network aims mainly to connect NGOs like FAIR and our counterparts in other countries, facilitating collaboration and mutual support.

Participants in the civil society network inaugural meeting at Middlesex University

These two back-to-back events attracted between them about 45 people from 18 countries including Australia, South Africa, the USA and many parts of Europe. The participants – mainly researchers, civil society practitioners and whistleblowers – brought to the table a wealth of knowledge and information and a stimulating mix of perspectives.

These are important and exciting gatherings, connecting people who are at the cutting edge in developing a relatively new body of knowledge – about how to leverage the courage of honest employees to expose misconduct within organizations and protect the public interest. There is now a critical mass of research going on in this field, examining a wide variety of legislative approaches implemented in numerous jurisdictions – rather like parallel lab experiments. Many of these systems have been in place for decade or more.

Outstanding research

These conditions have created the opportunity for some outstanding in-depth research to clarify what works in practice and what doesn’t. One of the most impressive to date is an extensive study funded by the Australian Research Council, entitled “Whistling While They Work”.

This research project, launched in 2005 has involved six Australian universities, 14 partner organizations (ombudsmen, anti-corruption commissions and ministries), and obtained evidence from more than 7,600 employees in 118 public institutions. Part 1 of the findings thus far are available in a 333-page report that is also available as a free download (pdf). Follow-on research in Australia and elsewhere is now focused on a deeper understanding of the original findings.

There are some fairly clear lessons emerging from high-quality research, which make it possible to define key principles and best practices supported by empirical evidence from the field. Such work is also leading to guidelines and international standards designed to help lawmakers and corporate leaders utilize whistleblowing effectively as a tool to foster good governance and combat corruption.

Implications for Canada, the 'Enron' of whistleblower protection

This is all good news for Canada, since we have done little substantive research in this country and our lawmakers badly need some competent help. One of my aims was to make contact with internationally-respected experts willing to contribute to the process of figuring out how to fix our broken federal whistleblower legislation – to ensure that when the PSDPA is reviewed in 2012 we get it right this time. I was able to distribute FAIR’s initial work on this topic – the more than two dozen problems we have identified in the PSDPA and our draft list of solutions – and to obtain enthusiastic commitments of support from those I asked.

People are keen to help: many other countries have had serious setbacks, but none has experienced such a spectacular meltdown of their national whistleblower protection system and virtually everyone at the conference seemed fully aware of Canada’s problems. Many could name our former integrity commissioner and marvel at how her misconduct was rewarded with an obscene, undeserved ‘severance’ package. Canada is now seen internationally as the ‘Enron’ of whistleblower protection: not the image that we’d like to have on the world stage, but unfortunately one that is fully justified.

The presentations and conversations that took place are too rich and varied to summarize, so I’ll pick out just a few topics that particularly interested me.

Wikileaks and beyond

The impact of Wikileaks was the subject of much discussion, and coincidentally one of the participants, Professor A.J. Brown of Griffith University, Australia, had just visited Julian Assange (who is under house arrest at Ellingham Hall in the UK) for a discussion about the nature and future of whistleblowing and the media.

Regardless of what happens next to Assange and his brainchild, the genie is truly out of the bottle for anonymous leaking by electronic means: other organizations patterned on Wikileaks are popping up all over the place, and mainstream media organizations (e.g. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Guardian) are setting up their own websites to receive information anonymously – and are actively soliciting leaks.

People who work in this field draw a sharp distinction between whistleblowing and leaking. Whistleblowing is the disclosure of suspected wrongdoing through approved official channels to appropriate authorities – behaviour which can only be considered courageous, honourable and responsible. In contrast, leaking is unauthorized, usually anonymous disclosure direct to the media – behaviour that is often (unfairly) characterized as cowardly or irresponsible. However the two are inextricably linked, since leaking is what desperate would-be whistleblowers are driven to in order to protect the public interest when the official channels are broken or corrupt.

Wikileaks has helped to normalize the publication of much information that has in the past been successfully kept secret. In spite of the authorities’ predictions of apocalyptic consequences, the revelations emerging from thousands of leaked diplomatic cables have proven to be quite valuable. They have led to a more informed public debate (e.g. regarding the corrupt nature of many regimes that the West has embraced as allies) and they have contributed to the so-called Arab Spring – an historic bid for democratic freedoms in long-oppressed Arab countries. And the public has become accustomed to media pieces – on all kinds of topics – where a story has been confirmed by information from Wikileaks. Such ‘leaks’ now seem routine, normal, perhaps indispensable.

In short the prevalence of leaking – and the scandals and political hypocrisy exposed as a result – is making it harder for the authorities to keep secrets, and harder to justify ever-more-draconian measures to suppress leaks.

An intriguing observation about statutary public disclosure

A rational response to this dilemma would be to make official channels for disclosure much safer and more effective – so that concerned employees don’t need to resort to leaking, and the authorities get a chance to fix problems before they can become front-page stories. The instinctive first reaction is often denial and cover-up: but good legislation can provide incentives to think again and to adopt an approach that better serves the public interest.

There’s some evidence that strong statutory provisions for public disclosure can encourage agencies to provide better whistleblower protection. Researcher A.J. Brown observes that the best-performing jurisdiction in Australia (there are ten) is New South Wales, where the law virtually guarantees public disclosure unless the authorities deal with disclosures quickly and effectively. It seems that the imminent prospect of fully authorized public exposure may concentrate the mind and focus management on addressing the problem rather than attempting to cover up.

This is just one of many valuable observations emerging from the research, but it is one that we can certainly act upon in Canada when we revise our deeply-flawed legislation.

Conclusions

The next IWRN conference will take place in Seattle on March 23-24, 2012, and the civil society network meeting will again piggyback on this event. Anyone who is serious about keeping abreast of developments in whistleblowing should mark this conference in their calendar. For NGOs, typically struggling to serve the public good on a shoestring, the civil society network holds out the promise of more effective collaboration and mutual support. I hope to be able to participate again in Seattle.

I also hope to encounter some fellow Canadians next time. It would be good to see Canadian academics showing a deeper interest in this field, as well as members of our legal profession, and perhaps even representatives from our Justice Department and PSIC. The better we collectively understand this subject the better our chances of recovering from the current mess, creating a system that will work, and restoring our badly tarnished international reputation.

For more information

  • An ebook based on the conference presentations given is scheduled for publication this autumn.
  • Anyone can join IWRN simply by requesting that their email address be added to the electronic distribution list. Send membership requests to Prof. David Lewis at d.b.lewis@mdx.ac.uk

Links

Photo gallery

UK Whistleblowing Conference
Jun 23-24, 2011