The State Services Commission’s review of the Protected Disclosures Act 2000 is evidence that speaking up is going to become more important to those operating in the public sector, says Jane Arnott.
Local government can ill-afford to be found wanting when employees, suppliers or ratepayers wish to speak up. The reputation of local government and its people, elected or otherwise, can be seriously impacted if trust and respect is lost. The means, processes and creation of a culture that enables people to speak up are critical in an information age.
An increasing range of behaviours are now falling within whistle-blowing parameters. Casual jokes and pranks with racist or sexual overtones, for example, are no longer worth the risk. Our collective tolerance and sensitivity for behaviours and actions that fall outside new societal standards of acceptability has narrowed.
This trend is a warning to all entities, and particularly those engaged in public service, to revisit and refresh their speak up policy along with the implementation and training that goes with it.
Over recent months, several examples have surfaced that demonstrate how much local government’s understanding of speak up warrants additional attention.
The #MeToo movement has fundamentally shifted the goal posts among one class of unacceptable behaviour – sexual harassment and assault. However, when the news broke about a Kapiti Coast councillor found guilty of indecent assault, the media reported that five other staff had previously complained about the perpetrator. The implication was that a chance to prevent the eventual assault had been missed. If a process had been in place it had failed. And failed badly.
Speaking up is no longer the domain of the disaffected. It is a vital role which all employees need to feel empowered and encouraged to undertake.
Speaking up provides the opportunity for intervention before a situation gets worse. Effective processes enable resolution and, ideally, prevention and are indicative of an ethical culture.
Recently, South Waikato District Council was struggling to explain how a community trust controlling $24 million of public money, and established under its auspices, had decided to axe an appointments committee that in many ways severed council’s voice.
South Waikato mayor Jenny Shattock was reported as saying she was ‘surprised’ to learn trustees had changed the trust deed several years earlier. The same whistleblower had also informed council of other potentially negative reputational matters that the trust, once advised, had decided to ignore.
Unsurprisingly, the issue filtered through to the media as more and more people became aware of the lack of transparency and the council’s late insight.
Along similar lines, Auckland City mayor Phil Goff was called into the media fray when Auckland Transport, a council-controlled entity, refused to attend a public meeting sparked by the loss of public carparks. One could argue that a reasonable person could have predicted the reputational risk of such a decision. Had a speak up line or process been in place, and had all employees been familiar with the benefit of speaking up, it’s entirely feasible that the mayor’s subsequent strong words and media headlines could have been averted.
Changing the lens, however, the fact that the media attention combined with Mayor Goff’s public frustration has now triggered an independent review of the city’s CCOs should also ring a note of caution. Speaking up, when framed as early intervention, can prevent things from getting this bad or action this necessary.
Sometimes it’s as simple as having a collaborative working relationship between people of similar functions where a direct phone call can diffuse a situation.
In some instances, a whistleblower will face the added complication and influence of a power imbalance that undermines their ability to speak up. The substantial fear over retaliatory behaviours – such as, for suppliers, delaying invoice payment or, for employees, denying a promotion – can deter whistleblowers.
However, there are ways around these concerns that, to be effective, need to be implemented and communicated. In some circumstances, maintaining a watch over the career progression of the person who speaks up is vital in building sustained confidence in the process. If a supplier is involved, it is essential to ensure their contracts and payment schedule are maintained.
Local whistleblowing company Report it Now has been providing a confidential speak up line to companies, crown agencies, local government and CCOs for over nine years. According to director Craig McFarlane, it’s never a case of “we have no instances of speak up therefore our culture is excellent, and everything is fine”. Usually, it’s a case of “there’s no way we would risk our jobs by speaking up over a small issue and even with a larger issue we would have to trust that someone would listen and actually do something”.
Craig highlights that when clients, including those in local government or crown agencies, sign up to have an external whistle blowing line employees start believing that they can have a confidential voice rather than a semi-stifled internal one.
“Quite often clients come to us after other mechanisms fail,” he says. “All are aware there’s a massive benefit if employees feel at ease raising a concern that can then be dealt with before it cascades into a media storm that reflects badly on leadership, management and the entity concerned”.
Craig says he notices a difference between clients, including local government, who are serious about embedding a speak up culture and those that just want to tick boxes.
“Naming a speak up line to reflect their company’s style and tone, along with practical training sessions that reinforce the importance of raising concerns, is emerging as an initiative that stems from internal functions such as people and culture, and legal and risk,” he says.
An effectively-managed speak up process has many facets. It must take into account the impact of speaking up on everyone involved. This means building a culture where speaking up is not only known to be the right thing to do but people who are involved in handling the information do so with sensitivity, efficiency and professionalism.
Doing nothing or failing to follow through when information is reported isn’t an option. If an opportunity for intervention is missed the problem only gets multiplied. When nothing is seen to happen the potential for media involvement and information entering the public domain increases.
Briefing and supporting managers, explaining to employees how important the speak up role is and extending the opportunity to speak up to suppliers who can be at the receiving end of poor behaviour embeds a responsible tone.
Many companies and an increasing number of local government authorities are also providing an independent speak up line to better enable both confidentiality and swift resolution.
Speaking up is no longer the domain of the disaffected. It is a vital role which all employees need to feel empowered and encouraged to undertake. It builds confidence and trust in the public sector and its processes. Local government would be wise to place, high on its agenda, the value of speaking up.
- Jane Arnott is director of the Ethics Centre NZ and an associate of the Institute of Business Ethics.
This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.