Monday, April 11, 2011

Then is this whistleblowing?

 This is a true story , with the names changed, It is used as a teaching vehicle in a university ethics class

Community Assistance (CA) is an Australian NGO with a longish history of helping individuals with personal problems to sort out their difficulties.  It is active throughout Australia except in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Individual members worked by listening to the problems of people coming to them and providing advice. They also try to strengthen the main legislative acts designed to help those that they worked with.  A third aim was pushing relevant State and Commonwealth organisations to be more proactive in their assistance activities.

Some of the members felt that CA could be more effective if it made the general public as well as concerned legislators more aware of the problems their clients faced. They also needed to research ways to strengthen the legislation. They would do this through investigation of current problems , and making the information available through an expanded website; also by gathering and publishing information on the problems they had identified, and by giving public lectures. They needed money to fund these activities, and at the 2008 Annual General Meeting a motion was passed which authorised the proposing member to pursue/ investigate applications for grants.

It was not till late 2009 that this member identified a source of funding, through the philanthropic arm of a major international corporation. It required only an initial expression of interest (EOI). He advised the National Committee by email that he was starting work, and sent out several increasingly detailed drafts of the EOI.

Two members objected - the National Secretary and the designer of the current website. Their objections seemed to be primarily that the National Committee needed to see and approve the EOI.  The possible ways in which the money could be controlled were also issues. The deadline was fast approaching with no resolution. Those supporting funding finally put the proposal in on the deadline, under the 2008 AGM authorisation, arguing that the EOI was not an application. The application came only if the EOI passed scrutiny.

Hell broke loose. An increasingly confrontational series of emails followed, some of them personally abusive. The Secretary wrote several times to the funding agency, asking for a copy of the EOI, and implying that it had not been approved by the Committee.  The President objected, stating that this correspondence was unauthorised. The member who prepared the EOI objected to the implications on his honesty, and one member demanded that the secretary “be sacked”. Those members who tried to conciliate the issue were voices in the wilderness.  Phrases such as “head kicker”; members were “misled and deceived”; “we were tricked”; “it is your fault”; “”your outrageous claims (are) defamatory”, and demands on both sides for “an apology”; peppered the airwaves.

At a local meeting on 9 March 2010, the Secretary claimed that she had “blown the whistle”. When the question of wrongdoing was raised (included in a common definition of whistleblowing), she stated that the EOI was a submission, so the resolution of the 2008 AGM had been contravened.   The website designer also described her as a whistleblower, but working toward the good of the organisation. A universal agreement on whistleblowing is that to qualify for protection the whistleblower has to be acting in the public interest.

Question to Students

!. Was this whistleblowing?


At April 12, 2011 at 7:26 AM , Blogger artful said...

Interesting, Peter. But to me, it sounds familiar of a brand of NGO operations I have seen with some frequency--a dysfunctional board and/or operating entity. I didn't see much in your description that smacked of whistleblowing.

At April 28, 2011 at 1:24 AM , Blogger Peter Bowden said...

It was not whistleblowing. The most common definition of whistleblowing is the exposure of wrongdoing to somebody who can do something to correct it. Wrongdoing is described as an unethical, illegal or illegitimate action. In this case, there has been no wrongdoing. The action that the Secretary has taken is her response to her difference of opinion. Community Assistance is an actual organisation. This small story was written for teaching in an ethics class at the University of Sydney, and was intended to demonstrate what some people believe to be whistleblowing.


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