Codru Vrabie, on whistleblowing in Romania

Public institutions and private companies with over 50 employees will be required, starting from December 2021 and December 2023, respectively, to establish dedicated whistleblowing mechanisms and procedures that guarantee, among others, high safety standards, anonymization procedures for whistleblower data, and a proper management of whistleblower reports. These requirements are part of the European Directive no. 1937/2019 on whistleblower protection, that must be transposed during this period in the Romanian legislation.    

We will be publishing a series of interviews concerning the state of whistleblowing in Romania. The series begins with Codru Vrabie, activist, trainer and consultant in the field of good governance, with special interests in anti-corruption reforms in public administration and justice. 

How were whistleblowers affected by the pandemic?

I’ve recently read a comment on this subject that said that, because people are working from home during this pandemic, they feel more comfortable and safe to act as whistleblowers – evidently, in cases where they have such mechanisms for whistleblowing that they trust. But it seemed to me more of an intellectual speculation, rather than something based on real numbers. Another point of view that also may seem valid says that the number of whistleblowing reports diminished during this period because of the change to working from home, which reduced the direct contact between people and their work environment. But I don’t know who could actually measure them.       

Now, talking specifically about Romania, I don’t think the pandemic had an effect on whistleblowing, because things stayed the same. It seemed different at the beginning, during April and May last spring, when there were a lot of whistleblowing reports from the medical field, like ‘we don’t have masks for doctors’, ‘we don’t have PPE for the medical personnel’, or this or that hospital is not properly built and is not properly disinfected’. But these things were already talked about in the media, there were whistleblowers saying this before. The pandemic just made them even more visible in the media, more interesting. Those reports became priority news, but I think they were happening before that.   

Another thing about whistleblowing that stayed the same is the Romanian mindset regarding it – which is not aimed at fixing the problem, but on finding a guilty party. In the Romanian context, whistleblowing that finds its way in the media is a kind of vengeance. I’m sure there are whistleblowing reports that want to fix problems, but they never reach this large audience. When whistleblowing aims to fix a problem, not just to point fingers, that subject is uninteresting to the media, and this is a cultural and institutional deficiency. I don’t think this problem has a solution other than through leadership mechanisms. To change a paradigm you need someone that can raise a flag or push a train forward.  

In our society, whistleblowing is misunderstood exactly where it should not have been, at the institutional and decision level. People with authority who you would expect to get things moving do not understand this phenomenon. The best proof for this is that no political party has a whistleblowing mechanism in place, even though they are legal entities of public interest. When dealing with whistleblowers, progressive parties like USR and PLUS chose to exclude them. How can institutions be ready for this if even the party culture doesn’t understand the phenomenon?    

As for the problems brought by the pandemic to the relation between journalists and whistleblowers, I empathize, but don’t agree with their complaints. I agree that the workload is obviously higher for journalists who use sources for their investigations, that now have to be corroborated with information from official sources. And that official sources are scarcer now. Public data stopped coming, even from places where it was expected normally, or it came in different formats or through different channels. In any organization, the leaders become more authoritarian in a crisis and, yes, they can impose restrictions and exaggerated regulations on employees, like the cases with those hospital managers that forbid the disclosure of any inside information to anyone from outside of the institutions, about the way they were handling the pandemic. It was a visceral reaction to extend their power and control things. Contrary to what you expect, in such a moment it is better to give people even more freedom, because that is the way to find new ways to collaborate and solve the problems that arise. It is better to know if we lack some things, because otherwise we cannot fix it. But this is happening in any crisis, and journalists must know it is somehow normal that it becomes harder to get information in such conditions.     

The perspective from the point of view of a potential whistleblower may be ‘how big is the risk that I may lose my job and end up with no financial resources if I get sick?’ versus ‘there are wrongdoings happening in this hospital and people will die’. It may sound cynical, but it’s a natural psychological mechanism, conscious or not, and people may prefer to stay silent, even if they’re threatened or not. In the context of a crisis, this kind of math is important for survival. 

The context of this pandemic was no more special than any other crisis. It highlighted the fact that the public health services are in crisis, but we knew that already. It also highlighted some mindsets and attitudes that we already knew are blindspots, like the sewer and sanitation systems. We also knew that in crisis people prefer to blame external factors, a fundamental attribution error, which is a universal human behaviour.  

What’s the main benefit brought by Directive 1937/2019 on whistleblowing? 

The Directive brings new life to this subject, but I don’t see it lasting very much. Last year, the minister of justice showed no interest towards this subject, the same with the new government, from what I know.  

Extending the whistleblowing mechanisms into the private sector can be seen as a good thing. But multinationals operating in Romania probably had them already. Romanian companies that were working with multinationals also probably had such internal requirements. The news needs to reach all the other companies in Romania. 

I’m afraid that the new NGO coalition CivicAip, the civic network to promote whistleblowing, is a sign that this new energy of the directive was not properly received by the Romanian society. Because if it had been, there would have been no need for a coalition that says that these things are not working and that we need to do something about it. 

In order to talk about a proper transposition of the directive, we need to see what the Romanian state wants to get out of it. If it just wants a bigger ‘harvest’ of whistleblowing reports, then the whole concept is wrong. Basically, it’s important to understand that the Romanian society shows, at a cultural level, a rejection of the idea of whistleblowing, because we didn’t have a good foundation for it, a good communication of it, no understanding of the mechanisms and of the benefits it brings. Communication and understanding don’t happen by law. If the transposition will be limited to drafting a text on a piece of paper, making its way through the Parliament, ending up in the Official Gazette, it’s not enough. We need an awareness campaign, with efforts towards communication and understanding, in order to change the cultural paradigm on whistleblowing. As we did nothing for 15 years, inertia is keeping us back.     

How can we change the general perception on whistleblowing, which is too often associated with snitching?

I’d say there’s only one way to do it. A series of 10-12 clips, because video works today, in which you watch leaders of various institutions, organizations and companies telling what they’ve learned from whistleblowing reports, how they corrected the problem, and how much better they’re doing now, after solving it. In other words, the communication campaign mustn’t look only at hero-whistleblowers, but rather at hero-beneficiaries who realized how serious the problem was, that it must be solved, and what benefits they got out of doing it.

What are the competent public authorities and what should they do to make sure that whistleblowing is more than just a concept in a nonfunctional legislation? 

On the frontlines are the political parties. I say this because institutions, as we see them, a ministry, a city hall, the parliament, the presidency, don’t enjoy a high level of trust among citizens. They end up associated with the person that’s leading them. The institution of the party is also untrustworthy, being personalized in the figure of the party leader. But there’s an important and clear distinction in the mind of the people, even unconsciously, that the party is a form of association between people and that decisions are usually taken with a majority vote. Consequently, if you hear that political parties instated such whistleblowing mechanisms, things can change and there’s a bigger chance that people pay attention and start thinking about the logic and benefits of this. The probability is still low, but if you want to start something and have the greatest effect possible, it’s a good place to start. That’s because the Romanian society doesn’t have strong professional associations, where this movement should have started. Imagine the impact if a medical association would raise the alarm that a certain doctor is doing bad things. It would be a good warning mechanism and a strong reaction at the level of the entire profession. And if it happens at the level of entire professions, it would certainly be adopted at the level of organizations. Because people bring their cultural experience into organizations and introduce it in the vertical management structures. 

But, as we don’t have strong professional associations in Romania, the only other associative instrument, with thousands of members, are the political parties. And here, unlike other organizations where the boss comes and just says ‘this is what I’ve decided’ and others must obey, people often don’t just listen, even if the leader comes and says that. The hierarchy is not that strong in a political party like in other organizations or institutions. That’s why I see them as the best place to start changing this paradigm.

How does technology help whistleblowing?

Here we have a paradox. Obviously, if you want to remain anonymous, the digital channel is more effective than the analog ones. Offering anonymity to your employees I think also means that you’re driven by the wish to find out wrongdoings. But if your wish is to make sure that those wrongdoings are not brought to light, then obviously you’ll prefer that whistleblowing be done in an analog way, preferably in a face-to-face report. So leaders that show reticence towards digital mechanisms of whistleblowing are very probably more concerned to hide wrongdoings in their organizations. But if people say ‘I don’t care what’s going public, I want to see what the problems are, in order to fix them’, they will accept whistleblowing reports on any kind of channel. And if a digital one offers a better protection of anonymity, they’ll implement it.

Younger generations are more open towards digital instruments. Older generations rather want analog channels. Most Romanian institutions, and a large part of private companies and organizations, are built on the model of the X generation, with an obsession with stamps and files. People from the Y and Z generations cannot understand this concept. So it’s going to be a lot of work in making the transition from the X mentality to that of the Z generation.

I think it’s very important to see how the younger generations see this concept of whistleblowing, how they understand its mechanisms, because they are the ones that can apply the necessary pressure for change. People in their 20s today will lead their organizations in 25 years, in both private and public sectors. And those born today will challenge them in 25 years, as they start their careers.

If the transposition will be made on the model of ‘just do this here and now’, nothing good will come of it. But if we plan this transposition with a time horizon of 20-25 years, with an understanding of the changes we’ll have to go through, then it’s important to double the text of the law with a package of activities that help it.

For the last 10 years, and we can even say 30, the Romanian society is going through a collective trauma regarding trust. It has roots in the lack of communist lustration, in the execution of Ceaușescu, because people wanted to hear from him at the trial about what happened to Romania, in the transformation of the FSN in a political party, after they said it would not happen, in the recent protocol of collaboration between SRI and the General Prosecutor’s Office, and, not least, in the recent Ordinance no.13. We have a collective trauma made chronic by the lack of trust, which explains our collective reluctance even to digital mechanisms of whistleblowing.

Whistleblowing can be seen as a sort of soap, a hygiene factor. Where it works, things are going better and don’t stand out. Where it doesn’t, it smells bad. And it’s really hard to convince people to use soap.  

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