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A Guide to Open Government and the Coronavirus: Whistleblower Protection & Scientific Integrity

Guía de gobierno abierto y coronavirus: Protección a denunciantes e integridad científica

Guide pour un gouvernement ouvert et le Coronavirus: Protection des dénonciateurs et intégrité scientifique

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Governments around the world are circumventing standards of sound public management and scientific processes in the rush to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the context of a rapidly unfolding crisis, governments are making swift changes to regulations and institutions that may inadvertently create openings for corruption and mismanagement.

Corruption threatens to decrease the efficacy of vital response measures such as national stimulus packages and emergency medical supply procurement. Governments are also bypassing hard-won transparency measures in their urgency to attain essential supplies. 

Resultantly, protecting whistleblowers is more important than ever to ensure efficient and ethical use of government funds in response to the crisis. Similarly, maintaining the integrity of the scientific process is critical to ensure accurate health policy and strong public trust in government research efforts. Taking an open government approach to whistleblower protection and scientific integrity is therefore essential to effectively strike the balance between swift and effective pandemic response measures.

Recommendations

The following recommendations related to whistleblower protections are drawn from Transparency International and the Government Accountability Project.

Recommendations on scientific integrity are drawn from the US’ Center for Disease Control, National Institute of Health, and the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity.

Open Response

Open response measures place transparency, accountability, and participation at the center of immediate government efforts to curb contagion and provide emergency assistance.

Whistleblower Protections: 

  • Anonymous reporting channels: Provide a variety of anonymous reporting channels, such as internal and external hotlines, online portals or compliance officers to increase access from a diversity of whistleblowers. In particular, ensure reporting channels for high-risk areas in the pandemic response, such as medical supply procurement.
  • Transparent regulations and mechanisms: Whistleblower mechanisms should be highly visible, transparent, enforceable, and timely.
  • Access to justice: Ensure whistleblowers’ access to counsel is protected in law and that whistleblowers have access to legal remedies and representation. 
  • Ongoing participation: Provide whistleblowers the choice to participate in subsequent investigations and to be informed of the progress and outcome of investigations.
  • Parliamentary oversight: The legislature should use its authority to oversee and provide regular monitoring of whistleblower protections and scientific integrity issues specifically related to COVID-19.
  • Scope of whistleblower protections:
    • Broad individual protections: Protect anyone who witnesses wrongdoing. Protections should extend beyond public employees to include private sector workers, citizens, contractors, medical workers, and members of the media.
    • Broad definition of wrongdoing: The scope of disclosures that fall under whistleblower protections should be broad, extending beyond criminal behavior to include harm to the public interest.
    • Broad retaliation protections: Protect against all forms of retaliation, not just workplace harassment. Whistleblowers should be protected from direct, indirect, and future consequences as well as civil suits and criminal prosecutions. Women may be more likely to experience retaliation, so additional gender-based protections should be considered.

Scientific Integrity

  • Apolitical scientific processes: Isolate scientific processes, such as vaccine research and testing, from political issues as much as possible.
  • Open communication with the public: Cultivate channels of communication between government researchers and experts with the media and general public to disseminate vital COVID-19 information.
  • Free speech: Permit scientists to speak to the media and public in their area expertise without censorship.
  • Independent oversight: The legislature and courts should retain the ability to exercise close oversight and review over allegations of research misconduct, including cases of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.
  • Whistleblower protections: The rights of whistleblowers in the scientific community are particularly important during a public health crisis. Ensure that investigatory processes are fair, comprehensive, and expedient.

Open Recovery and Reform

Open recovery measures place transparency, accountability, and participation at the center of medium-term government efforts to rebuild in the wake of COVID-19. Similarly, open reform initiatives ensure that the public is at the heart of government in the post-pandemic world.

Whistleblower Protections: 

  • Open data: Publish data and information related to whistleblower disclosure regularly, such as the number of disclosures, outcome, and prevalence of wrongdoing.
  • Independent complaints authority: Establish an independent body with the authority to investigate retaliation and improper investigations, administer sanctions, as well as provide guidance for reporting mechanisms.

Scientific Integrity

  • Universal training: Train scientists in robust scientific methods, appropriate experimental design and statistics, responsible research practices, and communication skills that reflect scientific integrity.
  • Open science: Establish open science as the standard operating procedure and promote reproducibility of research through transparency.
  • Peer review processes: Create transparent processes for peer review and the correction and/or retraction of published materials.
  • Rigorous and comprehensive evaluation criteria: Design criteria that recognizes and rewards the highest standards of integrity in scientific research.

Examples

The following examples are recent initiatives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and are drawn from our crowdsourced list as well as partner materials.

Whistleblower Protections: 

  • United States: On 21 April 2020, Dr. Rick Bright was removed as Director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority after resisting “misguided directives” to promote unproven treatments for COVID-19. He and his lawyers filed a whistleblower complaint with the Health and Human Services (HSS) Inspector General. Additionally, members of the House of Representatives intend to hold a hearing on Dr. Bright’s dismissal and requested the HSS Inspector General look into the matter.

Scientific Integrity:

  • United States: The National Science Policy Network and the Federation of American Scientists have created an online platform for the public to read answers and ask scientists questions regarding COVID-19.
  • Brazil: The Brazilian Institute of Information in Science and Technology has created a directory of scientific reports, data, articles, and manuscripts related to COVID-19.

The following examples are commitments previously made by OGP members that demonstrate elements of the recommendations made above.

Whistleblower Protections: 

  • Ireland: (2014-2016) Encourage, protect and raise awareness of whistleblower duties and protections.
  • France: (2015-2017) Introduce legal provisions to protect against conflicts of interest.
  • Denmark: (2019-2021) Anonymous Whistleblower Portals for Justice System Employees.
  • Czech Republic: (2018-2020) Raising Awareness About Whistle-Blowers.

Scientific Integrity:

  • United States: (2015-2017) Opened information and data from government-funded scientific agencies to enable citizen innovation.
  • United Kingdom: (2013-2015) Allowed citizens to contribute to policy-making on issues involving scientific innovation and analysis through the Sciencewise Programme.

Resources

Whistleblower Protections

  • View this open letter from several civil society partners including Access Info, Transparency International and others calling for increased whistleblower protections and transparency within governments’ COVID-19 responses.
  • The Government Accountability Project offers a comprehensive guide to whistleblowing as well as a guide specifically for federal scientists, with a primary focus on the US context.
  • The RECORD Project and Transparency International have published recommendations for the EU Directive on Whistleblower Protection. Transparency International also offers a Best Practice Guide for Whistleblowing Legislation.

Scientific Integrity

  • The InterAcademy Council published this 2012 report on best practices for government scientists in regards to responsible research conduct. 
  • The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also has a guide that focuses on scientific integrity and preventing misconduct.
  • All European Academies (ALLEA) created the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, which is recognized by the EU Commission.

Partners who can
provide further support and information

Thank you to our partners at Transparency International and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project for sharing recommendations and reviewing this module.

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