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Thursday, 4 October 2007

Whistleblowing and accountability

RS Gilbert in his letter on "Whistleblowing" in the Canberra Times, October 3, 2007 missed a significant element of APS accountability, the accountability to Parliament. Perhaps he missed it because he framed the argument in terms of responsibility rather than accountability.

While APS accountability operates through the Minister, it cannot be reduced without remainder to serving the Minister and the Government of the day.
Parliamentary Committees for example, have asserted APS accountability to Parliament in terms of keeping Parliament informed and assisting parliamentary scrutiny of public administration and expenditure through a range of activities, not least of which are the "dreaded" Senate Estimates hearings. Accountability of the APS to Parliament also takes place through the reports of the Australian National Audit Office and the Ombudsman on the performance of the APS.

To attempt to reduce the role of the public servant to simply serving the Minister reflects the current emphasis on responsiveness to the Minister as the prime, indeed overriding account of how public servants are to understand their role. This is an emphasis that, it is now acknowledged, has lead to episodes that have brought the APS into disrepute, from the Children Overboard Affair onwards.

Given the more nuanced account of public service accountability that has developed in Australian practice, it is hard to see how "whistleblowing" could be subject to the blanket dismissal of R S Gilbert as "contrary to the principles of an apolitical public service and good public administration". It may be on the contrary that specific instances of "whistleblowing" are nothing more than an attempt to make accountability relationships work in situation where the formal mechanisms have broken down.

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