Public servants shy from blowing the whistle

| August 10, 2021

A researcher from The University of Western Australia has found government employees are most likely to stay silent despite witnessing workplace corruption in the Australian Public Service.

The study, published in Australian Journal of Public Administration, investigated what factors in the Australian Public Service (APS) workplace encouraged employees to internally report cases of workplace corruption.

The paper has been awarded the Sam Richardson Award for the most influential paper published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration.

Associate Professor Jeanette Taylor from UWA’s School of Social Sciences investigated the reasons why government employees reported cases of workplace corruption and the organisational culture that caused the majority to stay silent.

Jeanette Taylor

Using data from the APS Employee Census, Dr Taylor found a very low incidence of internal whistleblowing with only 33 per cent of the APS respondents who had directly witnessed workplace corruption internally reporting the incident that year.

The most common types of workplace corruption witnessed by APS employees related to favouritism – cronyism (the preferential treatment of friends), followed by nepotism (the preferential treatment of family members).

These were followed by conflict of interest and then fraud. Dr Taylor found that unlike other forms of workplace corruption, such as fraud and unlawful disclosure of information, which were more likely to be reported, cronyism and nepotism were unlikely to be reported by those who had directly witnessed them.

Most APS respondents admitted to staying silent despite having observed cases of cronyism and nepotism in their agency. Dr Taylor said the relatively high incidence of favouritism in the APS could be due to multiple factors.

“If we think that preferential treatment of friends and family members are largely confined to developing countries, then think again,” Dr Taylor said.

“Several reports by anti-corruption bodies in Australian states suggest these cases are harder to investigate and monitor. It is often difficult to get access to direct evidence of such an issue.

“There is also a low level of trust in the management to tackle the issue, not to mention concerns of retaliation.”

APS respondents were unlikely to report cases of workplace corruption in agencies with cultures that emphasised respect of authority and hierarchy and the importance of following rules.

Dr Taylor said the results highlighted the importance of good organisational culture in speaking up against workplace corruption.

“More must be done to cut out preferential treatment and improve public trust,” Dr Taylor said.