Why the system never seems to work

Published in The Whistle (newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), June 2001, pp. 3-4


Brian Martin

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Whistleblowers are often surprised at the hostile response to their disclosures. They might report problems at work to superiors, simply expecting that the matters will be investigated and rectified. They may not even think of themselves as whistleblowers.

Speaking out will always be necessary because, no matter how good government regulations, corporate auditing or medical ethics are, there are bound to be violations, abuses and other failures. That doesn't necessarily mean "the system" has failed, only that there has been an isolated breakdown. The system as a whole can be said to work if problems are dealt with in an effective way. But whistleblowers frequently encounter something deeper and more ominous.

After making a disclosure and suffering reprisals, whistleblowers typically expect that justice can be obtained on a wider stage. If the problem is with a boss, then the boss's boss should fix it. Or maybe a grievance procedure, a court case or a submission to an authority like the ombudsman. If these provide justice, then "the system", in a wide sense, can be said to work.

This is where things get really disheartening. For none of the higher levels or appeal bodies seem to be able to change a thing, at least not very often. The most that a persistent and fortunate whistleblower can expect is some compensation payment, often far too small and years down the track. But the original problem remains unfixed. More importantly, the procedures, organisational arrangements or mind set that led to the problem are unchanged.

Whistleblowers should be the warning signals for a system that is going off course. If the system works, that should mean that the signals are heeded. But they aren't. The question is, why not?

Why doesn't the system work?

One explanation is that corruption is deep-seated and pervasive. The whistleblower initially peeks under the carpet to find dirt and only later realises that the floorboards are rotten.

Another explanation is that appeal bodies are overloaded. They contain many well-meaning and hard-working staff who do their best in impossible circumstances. A whistleblower might need an investigator to spend months full-time on their case, but the reality is that the investigator has 50 other cases to handle.

A third explanation is that appeal bodies are set up to fail. Governments establish them to give the appearance of action against corruption, but don't provide them enough resources or teeth to achieve very much. If by some quirk an agency starts to make waves, it will soon be put in its place.

But why would governments set up appeal bodies to be toothless tigers? Does that mean that the governments have something to hide -- their own corrupt actions? That means we're back to explanation 1, deep-seated corruption.

"The system"

To answer this, it's helpful to look again at "the system". The usual assumption is that organisations, policies and procedures are set up to achieve their stated aims, such as productivity, efficiency, service, justice and fairness. When they fail, this is explained by incompetence or corruption.

But there's another way to look at things. Organisations, policies and procedures are set up and maintained mainly by people with a lot of power, money and status. It makes sense that they prefer systems that keep them in their advantageous positions, while appearing to be beneficial to everyone.

Furthermore, there's no conspiracy involved. Powerful people believe that they are acting in the public interest. It just so happens that the actions they think are best turn out to keep them in their powerful positions. The system is much more stable if those with the most power are entirely sincere when they defend it.

In this picture, the system is all about maintaining privilege, hierarchy, inequality, and selective justice while appearing to be compassionate and fair. It can't be too exploitative, otherwise people may rebel, so it needs to deliver goods and other benefits to a lot of people, but with more for the elite.

The whistleblower threat

From this picture of the system, whistleblowers are both annoyances and deep threats. They are annoyances because they expose some flaws in the way the system works. But that's not really a big problem for elites, since what's it matter if a few low-level corrupt officials are exposed? Vindicating and rewarding a whistleblower wouldn't be a problem for people in power if the only things involved were a few jobs and a bit of money.

The threat that whistleblowers pose is to the system of power. The whistleblower is saying, in effect, that one person with truth on their side should be able to have their way against lots of others with more power, money and position.

To allow a whistleblower to win on the substance of the matter would mean that the whole system would come under threat. After all, most power elites have skeletons in their closets and are vulnerable to exposure. So it is dangerous to allow a whistleblower to set a precedent.


If this perspective is adopted, a number of conclusions follow.

First, whistleblowers will be attacked even if it would be far easier and cheaper to deal with their complaints.

Second, the weaker and more insecure bosses and officials feel, the more they will attack whistleblowers. A whistleblower's best chance for a sensible response will be from superiors who are competent, secure and self-confident (deep down, not just superficially).

Third, if whistleblowers mobilise too much pressure to resist, the easiest way out is for managers to sacrifice a few scapegoats, such as low-level officials. The goal is to maintain the system.

Fourth, precedents for system change will be opposed to the bitter end. Elites prefer to give a whistleblower a massive payout rather than to open up the possibility of changing the system.

Fifth, symbols are used to give the appearance of responsiveness. Setting up appeal bodies is one way. Policies that sound good but achieve nothing are another. Pressures for change often can be eased through symbolic politics.

The system does work! But it's a system to maintain power and privilege, not a system to bring about justice.

How to have an effect

If whistleblowers understand what they are up against, they will have a much better chance. Change is possible, but it's not easy to bring about. There are actually a lot of people trying to bring about beneficial change, both inside the system and out. Whistleblowers can greatly improve prospects of being effective by clarifying their goals, finding out who else cares about those goals, investigating options, building alliances and planning for a long struggle. They can learn tremendous amounts both from other whistleblowers and from a variety of social activists.

The system is far from all-powerful. It is in constant flux, and does change for the better as well as for the worse. Whistleblowers have a special role to play but they can do it best if they team up with other actors and understand the plot.