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Open Government Reforms Need to Protect Whistleblowers

Las reformas de gobierno abierto deben proteger a los denunciantes

Andreas Pavlou|

This blog is part of a series of thematic blogs produced by the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) during Open Gov Week. Find other blogs in the series here.

At its heart, whistleblowing is about speaking up against wrongdoing and corruption. The headlines might focus on multinational organisations – think Panama Papers or Danske Bank – but a whistleblower might also report cases of bribery in a local government office in a small town. Their bravery at any level helps to ensure accountability in public life. They put their livelihoods and sometimes even their lives (and that of their family’s) on the line to speak up against corruption, waste, fraud, and abuse of public office. It is only right that these people have the appropriate protections in place. 

At the Open Government Partnership (OGP), over 20 participating countries have recognised the importance of protecting whistleblowers by advancing reforms through their OGP action plans. From Ireland to Uruguay, Tunisia to Australia, there have been over 50 different commitments made since 2011. The OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism has assessed over half of these commitments as having moderate or transformative potential for results. 

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OGP Members with Whistleblower Commitments

  • Albania
  • Australia
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • France
  • Ghana
  • Greece
  • Croatia
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Liberia
  • Latvia
  • North Macedonia
  • Nigeria
  • Serbia
  • Slovak Republic
  • Spain
  • Tunisia
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • Uruguay

In the latest round of OGP action plans, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Liberia and Spain have included promising commitments that seek to educate people about and promote whistleblowing, introduce whistleblower protection legislation, and/or develop technological solutions for anonymous reporting of wrongdoing. Latvia joined the OGP Leaders Network for its work between government and civil society to advance whistleblower protections. Many European OGP members are using their action plans to deliver on new requirements established by the 2019 European Union (EU) Directive on whistleblower protection

Even before this legislation came into effect, countries were implementing whistleblower protections. In Ireland, new legislation introduced in 2014 empowered all working citizens to report wrongdoing, with protections not limited to the public sector. It also set in place redress mechanisms for employees that have been dismissed or penalised for reporting wrongdoing in the workplace. In Italy, the launch of an open source whistleblowing portal in 2017 led to a significant increase in the number of public employees reporting wrongdoing or corruption. One in ten of these cases were sent to the public prosecutors’ offices, and another one in ten were sent to the Court of Auditors to ascertain the existence of wrongdoing or loss of public revenue. 

There are many actions that can be taken to protect whistleblowers. Recommendations for ensuring ambitious reforms that protect whistleblowers can be found in OGP’s Guide to Open Government and the Coronavirus

  • Whistleblower protections should be broad in scope, extending beyond criminal behavior, to include harm to the public interest (such as in the UK), and beyond public employees, to include private sector workers. 
  • Whistleblowers should be protected against any form of retaliation including civil suits and criminal prosecutions. Women may be more likely to experience retaliation, so additional gender-based protections should be considered. 
  • Whistleblower protection frameworks should introduce anonymous reporting channels (such as through internal or external hotlines, online portals, or compliance officers) and ensure mechanisms are highly visible, transparent, enforceable, and timely. 
  • Whistleblowers need access to legal remedies and representation and should have the choice to participate in subsequent investigations and be informed of the progress and outcome of investigations. 
  • Data and information related to whistleblowing should be disclosed regularly, such as the number of disclosures, outcomes, and prevalence of wrongdoing. 
  • The legislature should use its authority to oversee and provide regular monitoring of whistleblower protections. 
  • There should also be an independent body with the authority to investigate retaliation and improper investigations, administer sanctions, as well as provide guidance for reporting mechanisms.

As the world continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, protecting whistleblowers is more important than ever to ensure efficient and ethical use of government funds in response to the crisis. Taking an open government approach to whistleblower protection is therefore essential to effectively strike the balance between swift and effective pandemic response measures, but also more widely, to ensure accountability in public life.

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