Everyone agrees that eradicating wrongdoing in government is a worthy public policy goal. The real issue is how best to prevent, uncover, investigate and deal with wrongdoing.
Over the past three decades an increasing number of governments around the world have adopted laws on whistleblowing. The main aim of such laws has been to protect public servants who disclose serious wrongdoing against reprisals of various kinds. A closely related, but less prominent aim of such laws has been to provide tangible incentives for public servants to come forward with revelations of wrongdoing. Generally, whistleblower laws have not worked all that well in terms of serving both aims. Laws have not been very effective in protecting whistleblowers, especially against the more subtle forms of reprisal. The fate of someone who blows the whistle is often to see their career, and even their private life, seriously damaged.
Recognition of the bleak fate of most whistleblowers partly explains why only a tiny minority of public servants are prepared to reveal wrongdoing, even when there is supposedly statutory protection for such activity. This reluctance has led a number of governments to adopt, or to consider adopting, financial incentives for whistleblowing as a way both to encourage the activity and to recognize the potential career and financial risks involved for individuals who reveal wrongdoing.
The Conservative Party of Canada under the leadership of Stephen Harper promised during the last election campaign to introduce monetary rewards for whistleblowers who provided original, useful information about illegal, fraudulent or corrupt behaviour within government or by contractors serving government. This was one of six measures intended to “provide real protection for whistleblowers.”1 These measures would include amendments to Bill-C11, The Public Servants Disclosure Protection, which was studied by the House of Commons for nine months, underwent extensive amendment, was passed by the Senate in November 2005, just before the January 2006 election, but has yet to be proclaimed.2 New whistleblower protection provisions would be part of the much-touted Federal Accountability Act, the first piece of legislation to be introduced when the Harper government convened Parliament for the first time in April 2006.
During March, 2006, Mr. Pierre Poilievre, MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board, was in Washington, D.C. to see if the False Claims Act (FCA), which pays rewards to individuals who expose waste and fraud in federal spending and contracting, could be adapted to Canada. Mr. Poilievre was quoted in the press as saying that the American law might have flaws and not be suited to Canada, but he praised the creation of “entrepreneurial waste busters” who act on self-interest to stamp out the misuse of public money.3
This article extends the analysis and the argument of an earlier article (Canadian Public Administration, Summer 2005) by the author which examined the pros and cons of the whistleblower protection law passed by Parliament in November 2005. That article was based on the premise that whistleblowing is a morally ambiguous activity. The question posed here is: “Do financial incentives for whistleblowing make the activity even more morally ambiguous?” Often whistleblowing involves conflicting accounts of the existence, nature and the seriousness of alleged wrongdoing within government. It also involves the need to balance a number of interests and values:
1 Conservative Party of Canada, Stand Up For Canada, Federal Election Platform, 2006, p.11
2 See Paul G. Thomas, “Debating a whistleblower protection act for employees of the Government of Canada” Canadian Public Administration 48, 2 (Summer, 2005): 147-184 for a discussion of the recent national debates over whistleblower protection legislation.
3 Kathryn May, “Tories Consider U.S.-style bounty for waste-busting whistleblowers,” The Ottawa Citizen, March 13, 2006.
4 Thomas, op. cit.
- the interests of the public in the exposure, investigation, correction and prevention of wrongdoing;
- the interests of the whistleblower in being protected against reprisal and in seeing that corrective action is taken’
- the interests of person(s) accused of wrongdoing in due process and protection against inaccurate, false or malicious allegations; and
- the interests of the organization affected by the disclosure in not having its operations disrupted, its morale damaged and its reputation harmed.4