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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Whistle Blowing in the Public Sector

Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman

These materials were prepared for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics program in Government Ethics by former Senior Fellow Judy Nadler and former Communications Director Miriam Schulman.

What is the definition of whistle blowing?
What does whistle blowing have to do with ethics?
How can government encourage whistle blowing?
What ethical dilemmas does whistle blowing present?

What is the definition of whistle blowing?

According to George Kerevan, “Word of the Week” columnist for The Scotsman, “The etymological origins of whistle blowing are gloriously obscure.” Yet even without knowing the term’s pedigree, we get a vivid picture from the words themselves. Kerevan suggests the obvious one—a police officer shrilling on a whistle when he or she catches a crime in progress.

Whistle blowing means calling attention to wrongdoing that is occurring within an organization. The Government Accountability Project lists four ways to blow the whistle:

  • reporting wrongdoing or a violation of the law to the proper authorities.

  • such as a supervisor, a hotline or an Inspector General

  • refusing to participate in workplace wrongdoing

  • testifying in a legal proceeding

  • leaking evidence of wrongdoing to the media

Of course, whistle blowing goes on in the private sector, where some of the most famous figures include former Enron Vice President Sherron Watkins and tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand. But because government, by its very nature, is supposed to be open and transparent, full disclosure of unethical or illegal behavior in the public sphere is particularly important. Not all of the problems in the public sphere are, however, generated within the government organization; outside vendors, contractors, and individuals can participate in and even breed government corruption.

What does whistle blowing have to do with ethics?

A whistle blower once testified in a California court about how his boss had regularly ordered him to discard some of the company’s toxic waste into a local storm drain rather than dispose of it properly. Why, the judge wanted to know, had the man finally decided to step forward after having participated in this illegal dumping for years. “Well,” the man explained, “I was fishing with my grandson, and it suddenly occurred to me that the waste I was dumping was going to pollute the water so that he might never be able to go fishing with his grandson.”

Whistle blowing has to do with ethics because it represents a person’s understanding, at a deep level, that an action his or her organization is taking is harmful—that it interferes with people’s rights or is unfair or detracts from the common good. Whistle blowing also calls upon the virtues, especially courage, as standing up for principles can be a punishing experience. Even though laws are supposed to protect whistle blowers from retaliation, people who feel threatened by the revelations can ostracize the whistle blower, marginalizing or even forcing him or her out of public office. On the other hand, there have been occasions when the role of whistle blower has actually catapulted people into higher office and has earned the respect of constituents. (eg?)

How can government encourage whistle blowing?

In an article about whistle blowing in a business context , Lilanthi Ravishankar makes a useful distinction between external and internal whistle blowing. She argues that companies should encourage internal whistle blowing so that problems are solved within the organization before employees feel they must go outside to get action. The same is true for government bodies, which need to know about problems early—before illegal contracts must be renegotiated or aquifers have been polluted or the public’s money has been squandered or unethical behavior has become front-page news.

She makes several suggestions about how to encourage internal whistle blowing in companies. We repeat some of them here, with slight modifications for a government context:

  • Create a policy about reporting illegal or unethical practices, which should include:
    • Formal mechanisms for reporting violations, such as hotlines and mailboxesÿ
    • Clear communications about the process of voicing concerns, such as a specific chain of command, or the identification of a specific person to handle complaints
    • Clear communications about bans on retaliation
  • Get endorsement of the policy from top officials—mayor, manager, councilmembers, boards—and publicize the organization’s commitment to the process. Elected and administrative leadership must encourage ethical behavior and hold everyone within the organization to the highest standards, including the disclosure of activities that would have a negative impact on the public’s business.
  • Investigate and follow up promptly on all allegations of misconduct. Report on these investigations to the council or board.

What ethical dilemmas does whistle blowing present?

When a person encounters wrongdoing in the public sphere, his or her first step should probably be to use the organization’s internal whistle blowing mechanisms. William Black, professor of law and economics at University of Missouri-Kansas City, was himself a whistle blower when he worked as a Savings and Loan regulator in the 1980s. During a term as visiting scholar at the Ethics Center, he wrote about his experience:

Whistle blowers in the public sector often face the unique problem that their disclosure may constitute a crime. This can create an ethical dilemma when the ongoing misconduct is severe and there is no reasonable prospect that the abuse will end absent blowing the whistle….I would still recommend trying to get the responsible organs (e.g., your agency's/department's congressional oversight committees and/or inspector general) to take action first unless the threat to public safety was imminent.

All government bodies should have fairly straightforward lines of authority. For example, if a councilperson has a problem with city staff, he or she would go to the city manager. If an employee of the water district sees wrongdoing, he or she would start with a supervisor and move up the chain of command, and so forth. It’s always best to start with the mechanisms the organization has set up to deal with problems because these represent the best chance at an amicable solution.

If this process does not produce results, however, it’s not enough to say, “Well, I did my best.” If wrongdoing is not being addressed within the organization, it may be time to move outside—to the district attorney, the grand jury, or to the press.

Kirk Hanson, Ethics Center executive director, and Jerry Ceppos, former vice president/news, Knight-Ridder, have written on the ethics of leaking information to the press and suggest these considerations:

The first thing a potential leaker should ask is the status of the information itself. Is the information “classified,” “proprietary,” or otherwise “protected?” Is there a system in place which clearly considers this information restricted? If the information is clearly intended to be protected, then the leaker must meet a stiff test if he or she wants to leak it.

The second consideration is whether the potential leaker has a specific obligation, legal or ethical, to protect the information, or has the information only because another person violated his or her obligation to keep it secret. If so, then it is a much more serious matter to reveal it.

The third consideration is whether the information is about public or private matters. Information about another’s sexual orientation, about his or her private finances, or about personal phone calls has more of a claim to privacy than information about a person’s actions as a corporate executive or a government official. The difficult cases, of course, are those where the private life of individuals arguably influences their public actions.

Hanson and Ceppos also argue that potential leakers must assess the good and harm their leak may do. When lives are at stake or millions of public dollars are being misappropriated, those concerns for the public good trump the harm to personal privacy or government secrecy.

On the other hand, a leaker must determine if the conduct he or she is exposing represents actual wrongdoing or if it is simply represents a policy disagreement. Of course, much of the public’s business should be debated in public, and speaking up about disagreements on most issues is not only acceptable but also desirable. Closed-door sessions, however, are secret for a reason. Revelations about a city’s interest in a particular piece of property may boost the price of that parcel. Exposure of sensitive information about a hiring or firing decision may needlessly cause harm to an individual. As much as council or board members’ views may differ on these issues, they should remain secret if the problem does not rise to the level of misconduct.

November 2006

Oct 23, 2015
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