Earlier in the year, for the ‘Conversation Series’ in our client publication SpeakUp, our General Manager had the pleasure of interviewing integrity and whistleblowing expert A.J. Brown.
Professor Brown has spent over 20 years leading national and international research projects into whistleblowing. He is the Professor of Public Policy and Law and program leader, Public Integrity & Anti-Corruption in the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, at Griffith University. His current project, Whistling While They Work 2, has received significant attention in the media and parliament.
Whistling While They Work 2 is the world’s largest current research project into whistleblowing and follows the inaugural project, Whistling While They Work, which focused on the Australian public sector. Griffith University’s Centre for Governance & Public Policy leads the project with support from a range of organisations including fellow universities, ASIC, Australia’s Commonwealth Ombudsman and CPA Australia.
YC: How did you first become involved in whistleblowing research?
I still remember the first day in 1993, as an investigator for the Commonwealth Ombudsman, identifying and talking to Commonwealth officers who knew about wrongdoing in federal agencies and who were prepared to talk about it — or who came to us with it — but for whom few supports and protections existed. My research began then, especially in a major review of how the Australian Federal Police responded to whistleblowers which we published in 1997. The Queensland Crime & Misconduct Commission then commissioned me to write advice on reporting climates which ultimately led to the first Whistling While They Work project being established with their support, and that of the Commonwealth Ombudsman and 13 other integrity agencies in 2005.
What are your thoughts around corporate Australia’s approach to whistleblowing programs compared with the G20 community?
As the originator and a co-author on the G20 reviews, it’s clear Australia is lagging well behind in our legislative protections for private sector employees and officers who blow the whistle, compared to many G20 countries, and compared to our own public sectors, which are relatively advanced… at least on paper. It’s not because most of corporate Australia isn’t willing, however. It’s because there are no clear standards and guidance, and no legislative drivers or incentives. There is huge scope of improvement based on identifying current best practice, and moving forward from there, including bringing others up to that level, and pursuing continual improvement. But it requires real effort and commitment from companies, especially in increasingly competitive business environments.
What do you believe are the crucial elements of a best practice whistleblowing program for an Australian organisation?
For the public sector, the first WWTW project was able to document those elements pretty well — our 2011 best practice guide sets out a checklist of about 40 items, ranging from clear expressions of organisational commitment to support whistleblowers, to good, clear and multiple reporting channels, to effective investigation methods, to key features of whistleblower support. For business and not-for-profits, many fundamentals are probably the same but one of the big objectives of the new research is to take nothing for granted, and really map and then evaluate what’s out there and what’s working. Then we will have clear advice for best practice, and plan to see that flow through into a new Australian and New Zealand Standard for these vital programs.
It all becomes easier once senior management understands how crucial whistleblowing is to good risk management – it’s the often the earliest and best warning system on problem areas in the organisation.
Based on your research to date, how can an organisation best embed a whistleblowing program within its corporate culture?
It’s clear it takes commitment, and resources, and clear responsibilities which are backed up by the terms of employment and the KPIs of the key managers responsible. Reporting to the board and to external regulators and other stakeholders on how well the organisation is tracking on how it deals with wrongdoing concerns, like other compliance challenges, is also crucial to ensuring that management stays awake on these issues. It all becomes easier once senior management understands how crucial whistleblowing is to good risk management — it’s the often the earliest and best warning system on problem areas in the organisation. But one way or another, it gets embedded both when the organisation’s leaders have a genuine commitment to ethical practice, social responsibility and organisational justice, and when it gets accepted as a fundamental element of normal corporate governance processes.
The entire conversation can be requested from the team here.
Click here for more information about Professor A.J Brown.