Public service office squabbles clogging whistleblower scheme

The Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office, which has oversight of the scheme, agrees, saying the “scope and breadth” of matters to be investigated under the Public Interest Disclosure Act needs to be re-examined. Photo: Tanya LakeMore public service news
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Complaints over public servants’ workplace squabbles need to be taken out of the system meant to uncover serious corruption and wrongdoing in the federal government sector, according to the man appointed to review the scheme.

Commonwealth whistleblower protection laws need to be further developed to prevent authorities being swamped by the minor workplace grievances of public sector employees, former Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Phillip Moss told a conference in Canberra on Wednesday.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office, which has oversight of the scheme, agrees, saying the “scope and breadth” of matters to be investigated under the Public Interest Disclosure Act needs to be re-examined.

Mr Moss, who is leading a statutory review of the act, spoke of “administrative burden” placed on the scheme when public service bosses “escalate issues unnecessarily”.

The Public Interest Disclosure Act has been in force since 2013 and is meant to give protection to officials who report, through certain channels, wrongdoing, corruption or maladministration in the Commonwealth public sector.

In its first years of operation the scheme has attracted 1336 “notifications” of disclosures to agencies or departments by more than 1100 serving or former federal government officials, according to the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office, the agency tasked with overseeing the scheme.

About 40 per cent of those reports were diverted to be investigated under other legislation, mostly the Public Service Act or Defence Force legislation.

George Masri, of the Ombudsman’s office, told the gathering in Canberra on Wednesday that the disclosure scheme had attracted complaints on several fronts.

Some potential whistleblowers said they could not get access to the public servants in their agencies or department who were authorised to accept disclosures of wrongdoing.

Others were worried about reprisals for telling what they knew and about potential breaches of confidentiality, and there were also issues of “managing the expectations” of public servants who believed they were exposing wrongdoing.

Mr Moss told the conference, organised by the Institute of Public Administration’s ACT division, that the legislation needed changes including tweaks to the breadth and scope of its coverage because too many complainants were trying to have minor workplace grievances investigated under the scheme.

Mr Moss also spoke of the administrative burden that resulted from workplace supervisors escalating issues unnecessarily.

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