Whistleblowers Australia: strengths, weaknesses and future directions

The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), December 1997, pp. 13-15

 

Brian Martin


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In just a few years, Whistleblowers Australia has achieved quite a lot. Members have provided information and personal support to hundreds of whistleblowers. Campaigning and publicity have helped raise the profile of whistleblowing in the media and the community. Where should WBA be going now? The following is a personal rather than an official view.

 

Strengths

The foundation of WBA activities is the commitment, principle and talent of its members. A primary characteristic of whistleblowers is principled belief and behaviour. That there is a high level of commitment and talent is also quite clear.

In my view, the area of WBA's greatest effectiveness has been personal support. This includes individual support through phone calls and meetings as well as group support in meetings of the "caring and sharing" type. When previously isolated whistleblowers come in contact with others who understand what they have been through, it can be an incredibly empowering experience. Celebrations and awards add an extra dimension to the process of providing support.

Another area of great effectiveness is networking, which often means putting people in touch with others with similar interests or experiences. This happens all the time as part of meetings and contact with individuals. Networking has contributed to groups and campaigns in particular areas, such as paedophilia. No single person or office could provide the sort of networking that WBA, as a national organisation, is able to offer.

WBA is also effective in producing and distributing information. This includes, first and foremost, The Whistle, but also information kits, leaflets, articles, letters and web sites. Information materials are a vital part of the support and networking functions. Conferences provide a potent means of combining support, networking and provision of information.

Finally, WBA has had some success in campaigns, for example in challenging WorkCover problems, developing policies for unions and pushing to change the International Labour Organisation convention to include protection for public interest disclosures. The process of campaigning is a vital part of these campaigns, leading to links with individuals and groups, media coverage and greater public awareness, even when formal policies remain unchanged.

Measured in terms of its membership, activity and visibility, WBA seems to be as strong as any whistleblower organisation in any country. Why is this? One explanation is that Australia is a convenient size, large enough to have plenty of whistleblowers but not so large as to be unwieldy for one organisation. Another explanation is that Australia is not so repressive as to squash all dissent, but not so tolerant as to coopt most of it. Yet another explanation is that it was particular personalities and unique circumstances that enabled WBA to survive and thrive as well as it has. Research into whistleblowing and whistleblower organisations in different countries is needed to determine whether these or other explanations stand up to scrutiny.

 

Weaknesses

While it is important to focus on and celebrate strengths and successes, it is also useful to acknowledge and understand weaknesses. A strong organisation can be strengthened by being open about problems rather than hiding them in the false hope that others won't notice. Understanding weaknesses is vital when undertaking planning for the future and adapting to changes in external circumstances.

Undoubtedly the greatest weakness of WBA is internal conflict, especially when it involves attacks on members. This undermines the support function, often driving people away, and takes time and energy away from productive activities. Internal dissension may arise from clashes between individuals and from a struggle for control, status or recognition.

In contrast to personal attacks, policy disagreements are not necessarily a weakness. If handled with tolerance, they can often be a source of creativity and insight.

Another weakness of WBA stems from the characteristics of whistleblowers. Their common feature is challenging some abuse of power, but other than this they have diverse attitudes and behavioural styles. There is an enormous diversity of viewpoints on social issues, preferred methods of action, skills and beliefs. Members of cohesive, effective organisations usually have similar orientations. WBA, by its nature, cannot hope to have the same level of cohesiveness as might be found in many other voluntary organisations such as church groups, sporting clubs or environmental groups.

Many whistleblowers come under severe attack, and few escape unscathed. This means that many members of WBA are so traumatised that it is a major achievement to hold their own lives together. The stress that many whistleblowers experience as a result of attacks is another weakness for WBA, since it means that only some members have a lot of surplus energy to help others and mount campaigns.

 

Limits to success

Although WBA has grown rapidly and had considerable success, this won't necessarily continue. There are several natural processes that are likely to limit WBA's growth and success.

First, internal conflict may make it impossible to continue to grow, at least in the pattern of growth so far. When attacks on other members become more significant than attacks on corruption in the wider society, it is a sign of a dysfunctional organisation.

Second, WBA is a potential target for infiltration and disruption by hostile forces. Any group that threatens powerful interests is a potential target. WBA may not yet be influential or cohesive enough to warrant infiltration and disruption by any particular group, but a much larger and stronger WBA could easily become a target for attack. (Note that saboteurs who attempt to undermine an organisation by spreading rumours or discredit it by taking unsavoury actions are usually indistinguishable from sincere members whose actions lead to damage. Often it can be worse to worry and make allegations about sabotage than it is to treat everyone as sincere.)

Third, social movements are subject to natural cycles of boom and bust. The movement against nuclear weapons, for example, was strong in the late 1950s and early 1960s, faded out for nearly two decades, boomed in the 1980s but then again faded to virtually nothing. In each period of heightened social concern, most activists thought that the movement would keep going as long as the problem persisted. Actually, though, the movement fizzled out due to loss of energy by leading activists, loss of interest by the media, and symbolic successes (such as the atmospheric test ban treaty) that gave the appearance of victory while actually leaving the problem pretty much unchanged. WBA could go through a similar cycle, for example if key members left, media attention waned and some symbolic successes occurred, such as whistleblower legislation.

Finally, WBA can never be fully successful as long as there are systems of power that foster corruption. Whistleblowing is inherently subversive, since it is based on the notion that a subordinate, by exposing the truth, should be able to make those with more power accountable. Since corruption, exploitation and unjust practices are found throughout society and extend to its highest levels, some types of whistleblowing will always come under attack. While it is possible for a few whistleblowers to be vindicated, there are limits to more general success. At some stage of WBA's evolution, progress will depend on major social reforms that will make most whistleblowing unnecessary.

 

Five roads to oblivion

1. WBA self-destructs through internal blow-ups.

2. WBA loses steam due to burnout and collapse of wider social support.

3. WBA gains large-scale financial backing and is transformed into a professional advocacy service, losing most of its volunteer support.

4. WBA's demands are coopted by official agencies and turned into mainstream policies, making WBA appear superfluous.

5. WBA's concerns are taken on board by many other organisations, so WBA's task is no longer necessary.

 

Strategies

What to do? There are many paths depending on one's assessment of strengths, weaknesses, goals, allies and opportunities. Here are some possibilities. These are not mutually exclusive.

A. Put the primary focus on prevention and cultural change. WBA by its current name and orientation puts most attention on individual whistleblowers. Much more attention is given to helping whistleblowers fight cases after they have been attacked than in promoting policies to prevent the abuses of power that make whistleblowing necessary in the first place. WBA might devote more attention to campaigns and even change its name, or set up a parallel organisation to address general issues. Whether it could do this and retain the current degree of participation is difficult to assess. An alternative is for WBA to transform itself into an umbrella organisation to link local whistleblower support groups and anticorruption activist groups.

B. Create an internal structure that allows initiative by many members and involves more people who support public interest campaigns. Currently a large proportion of WBA members are whistleblowers, many of whose energies are taken up by their own cases. Could more "supporters", those who are sympathetic to whistleblowing and social reform but who are not whistleblowers themselves, be brought into WBA? What would be the best way to do this?

C. Revamp organisational procedures to enhance trust between members. A fledgling organisation needs to iron out procedural and constitutional problems that only become apparent as it develops. Responsibilities of office bearers could be clarified so that members know what they can and can't expect. Likewise, the relationships between individual whistleblowers and their individual supporters -- relationships that currently are usually ad hoc -- could be made explicit and formalised. Training in group process skills could help to make meetings and other interactions more productive.

D. Move towards an empowerment model in which the primary function of WBA is to give members skills and experience to pursue their own cases and establish or join groups pressing for reform of systems creating social problems. This is one thrust within WBA already. Even so, there is a constant pressure to put expectations on a few office bearers, which is likely to replicate problems of official bodies. Rather than focus attention on WBA's formal procedures and official statements, the empowerment model is oriented to education and training of members and sympathisers.

E. Build links with relevant organisations and individuals, including journalists, lawyers, free speech advocates, trade unions and various action groups. WBA cannot bring about an end to corruption on its own. At most it is a part of wider struggle to transform organisations and social policy. WBA already has links with many sympathetic individuals and groups. One way forward is extend and develop this process of linkage.

A strategy is not something that can be implemented by a few individuals. It needs to grow out of the active interests and commitments of many people. A first step is for more WBA members to think about the sort of society they would like to help create and talk with others about ways to move forward.