Dr. Wim Vandekerckhove writes about how WIN enhances the work of academics and others working on behalf of whistleblowers worldwide.
I started researching whistleblowing in 2000, tracing public debates about different “good reasons” to protect whistleblowers through legislation in around 16 countries. These were all economically “first world” countries that had or were in the process of developing whistleblower protection legislation. For my data collection I relied on internet searches and snowballing, with Public Concern at Work in the UK putting me in contact with the Government Accountability Project in the US, Open Democracy Advice Center in South Africa, and Whistleblowing Netzwerk in Germany. I finished my analysis in 2005 and the book was published a year later.
In researching the book I made contacts in the US, the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, and Belgium. The individuals I met were working as auditors, legal advisors, ombudsmen, union reps, or were whistleblowing activists. I thought I had a good idea of what was happening “on the ground” at that time, or at least a much better idea than most of the junior academics I knew who were working on whistleblowing. In fact, my interest in researching this topic came from working in a family business with someone who had blown the whistle on a cartel — and whose business had gone under as a result.
Then in 2012 I took part in an expert panel reviewing the whistleblowing legislation guidelines for Transparency International in Berlin. The people around the table were no longer only from “first world” countries, but also from developing and transitional countries. It was very clear at that meeting that the whistleblowing context as well as the risks whistleblowers take were very different in various countries. In some Central European countries the main issue was journalists maintaining their sources’ confidentiality. In the UK whistleblowing in the health sector was the number one topic. In other countries the chief concern was grand corruption involving the presidential entourage. Risks varied from not being allowed to conduct training, to being jailed, to murder threats.
Similarly, there were also many different visions for whistleblower protection: some wanted job applicants to be covered by legislation; others saw this as irrelevant, arguing that whistleblowers should be given new identities to protect them. Some advocated broadening the definition of public interest whistleblowing, while others aspired to include whistleblowing in the framework of political asylum eligibility. All of us wanted to find ways to make whistleblowing more successful – i.e. safe and effective – but we were unprepared to find ourselves at the table with such a range of experiences and urgencies.
Though the idea for WIN began in 2011 at an academic conference on whistleblowing with a network of researchers I am closely involved with (International Whistleblowing Research Network), it was clear to me that it was the steady networking of WIN Director Anna Myers that had helped bring many people to that Berlin table. That meeting was the moment I realised that it was no longer possible for one person working alone to make both a contribution in a national context, as well as maintain knowledge of what was happening worldwide. A strategic division of labour was needed: WIN was the perfect way to facilitate the sharing of resources, expertise and insights for those working on behalf of whistleblowers around the globe.
WIN crystallised soon after that and started to add value immediately by bringing a high caliber of legal understanding and sensible guidance to several important projects: promoting the whistleblower protections set out in the Tshwane Principles, including a public interest defence for national security whistleblowers; drafting a new section on whistleblowing for the Open Government Guide; and contributing to stronger legal and practical guidance at the levels of the United Nations (in a guide on reporting persons under UNCAC to be published in 2015) and at the Council of Europe. An international benchmark such as the Council of Europe Recommendations on Protecting Whistleblowers is an important tool that can be leveraged both in national contexts as well as across borders.
WIN is also invaluable as an effective networking system. And by networking I don’t just mean having each other’s telephone number, but actually using the Network to create mutual understandings and coordinate positions. I learned this recently when I was asked to evaluate a second draft of the Serbian whistleblowing law with Paul Stephenson, a European expert. Tom Devine of GAP had commented on a first draft and would contribute further after our report. We all had our own experiences and expertise, and were the first to use the Council of Europe Recommendations as a standard. WIN enabled us to share ideas within the global network, check translations, and get some context for our work easily and efficiently. WIN’s coordination allows international collaborations to be a real win. That isn’t just a nice word play – it is the truth. And as anyone who has attempted it knows, getting activists, whistleblowers, journalists, and researchers to collaborate internationally is no mean achievement!
Dr Wim Vandekerckhove is Principal Lecturer at the University of Greenwich, where he teaches business ethics. His books include Whistleblowing and Organisational Social Responsibility: A Global Assessment (2006),
Whistleblowing and Democratic Values (2012, edited with David Lewis), and the International Handbook on Whistleblowing Research (2014, edited with Brown, Lewis, and Moberly). Learn more about his work at http://gre.academia.edu/WimVandekerckhove or follow him on Twitter @VdkWim.