Trust and Transparency in Government

At a time when the public’s trust in government, institutions and the media is at a record-low, the push for transparency and protections for whistleblowers is vital.

transparencyThe PSA is a staunch advocate for the protection of whistleblowers. As a union, we supported the development of New Zealand’s whistleblowing legislation, the Protected Disclosures Act, and have advocated for strengthening protections for whistleblowers, most recently in the wake of the scandal at the Ministry of Transport.

This incident, which saw a senior Ministry of Transport manager, Joanne Harrison jailed for $725,000 worth of fraud, demonstrates the value and importance of a system that supports the ability to blow the whistle on misconduct.

However, when concerns were raised about Harrison’s conduct at the Ministry of Transport, the whistleblowers asking questions were targeted. An inquiry by the State Services Commission in July found Harrison helped force whistleblowers out of their jobs when they raised concerns about her. Weeks later, the Auditor-General Martin Matthews resigned following a critical report into his handling of the case when he led the Transport Ministry. The PSA has called for the public release of this report.

This saga speaks to a situation where workers rights to speak out are under threat. PSA Assistant Secretary Kerry Davies says this situation can be traced back to the Protected Disclosures Act not being actively promoted: “It has been undercut by a management culture which is contrary to the spirit and intent of the legislation.”

“The manager voice cannot and should not drown out the worker’s voice. The expertise and experience of workers must be valued,” Kerry Davies said.

In June, author and researcher Max Rashbrooke released a report, Bridge Both Ways, which looked at trust and transparency in the New Zealand government. He noted that while New Zealand has a relatively open government by international standards, our “she’ll be right” attitudes can lead to complacency.

“There is evidence that it [New Zealand] is not properly fostering a political culture where citizens can access the information they need and public participation is encouraged,” he said.

For example, Rashbrooke says the Official Information Act is “frequently circumvented and misused” and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Democracy Index gave New Zealand a low ranking for its “political culture”. Although voter turnout has been high by world standards, it has fallen sharply since the 1980s, he said.

Rashbrooke also reported that New Zealand suffered from “cosy-ism”: a high degree of overly close relationships between members of a small society.

“This can be seen in the way that board appointments often go to people with strong political connections, proper processes are not always followed (as in the SKYCITY deal), and conflicts of interest — which are especially common in a small society — are not dealt with well.

The Ministry of Transport saga is the latest in a growing number of political scandals, many of which have involved the influence of wealthy donors on political parties.

“Cosy relationships have serious consequences, mostly by locking out the poorly connected and by ensuring that key decisions are not being taken openly. They also reinforce the public’s strong sense that influence over politics is not equal,” Max Rashbrooke said.

Some of the suggestions Rashbrooke makes to help create a more open government are: a register of lobbyists, an online database of all government ministers’ meetings, independent public appointments, strengthening MPs’ disclosures, crowdsourced bills, publishing all cabinet papers and increased protection for whistleblowers.

“Transparency International has noted that awareness of the act is low, and that many whistle-blowers ‘encounter inaction, and believe they are at risk of retaliation’,” he wrote.

“Other commentators have argued that the requirements to enjoy protection under the act ‘are extremely difficult to meet’, and that other countries ‘have much greater protection and a wider list of possible means of disclosure’.”

Kerry Davies says: "Being ‘free, frank and fearless’ in the public service isn’t just about the law, it’s about workplace culture."

The PSA has proposed a list of suggestions on what the State Services Commission needs to do in order to strengthen the service it provides public servants.

“What we are looking for is a proactive education programme, because we know that culture change takes deliberate and ongoing action. We want to be part of that. We know union density is also important in workplaces, people feel secure when they stand in solidarity, and it encourages a respectful workplace culture,” Davies said.

“We think the threshold for ‘serious wrongdoing’ is actually too high. We know our members feel vulnerable and nervous about speaking out and that’s not okay. The culture we are striving for is ‘if in doubt, check it out,’ that’s what we need to foster as a union.”

By Jessica McAllen

PSA suggestions on what the SSC needs to do to strengthen the service it provides public servants:

  • All state services should receive a formal briefing on the purpose of the ‘whistleblower’ law and their employer’s policy outlining how they can use the law
  • State agencies need to recognise that the ‘whistleblower’ legislation requires them to issue periodic reminders to staff about the law and their policy on invoking the law
  • State sector staff making a disclosure under the law should be provided with free and independent support. This would include enabling a union representative to support members through the process.

Policies and procedures of state sector employers need to include:

  • regular and routine provision of advice to all staff on their rights and responsibilities in relation to protected disclosures
  • General training for all staff and specific training for managers and others in key roles
  • Anonymous channels for employees to report sensitive information to auditors or regulators without fear of being exposed
  • Multiple reporting avenues, including clear external disclosure channels for whistleblowers to contact the media, Members of Parliament, NGOs or their union when necessary
  • Systems for recording and tracking concerns about wrongdoing.