Whistleblowing breaks down the myth of “we have everything we need”

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 continues with Elena Calistru, the chair and founder of Funky Citizens, a Romanian-based NGO. Funky Citizens builds research-based, data-driven advocacy tools. Funky Citizens’ tools aim to be educational and actionable, encouraging citizens to engage in accountability and government responsibility initiatives in which they can see an impact. Elena has more than 10 years of experience in civil society projects, both at national and international level. Her expertise is mainly in the area of good governance, transparency, public finance and advocacy. She is the founder of the first (and so far the only fully dedicated) fact-checking platform in Romania – www.factual.ro. The fact-checking platform is managed by Funky Citizens, but is a decentralized structure that maintains strong journalistic independence, while fully making use of the resources of the NGO in terms of expertise.

(Contact: www.funky.ong/ elena@funky.ong)

How were whistleblowers affected by the pandemic?

From our experience, and that of the journalists we work with, it seems that the pandemic gave a boost of energy to whistleblowers. At the beginning, in the first weeks of the pandemic, it was harder to talk to people from inside institutions, but then, after people saw wrongdoings and statements of “we have everything we need”, we started to have more and more whistleblowers going public or talking with journalists about the conditions in the hospitals or about dubious contracts with companies like Unifarm. Currently, maybe also because there were reactions even from unions that were pretty much silent until now, we have some fields, like the health system, where there’s a stronger supporting network for workers that want to speak up. For example, if a doctor wants to do a whistleblowing report, they can go to NGOs, there are more journalists seen as trustworthy, and they also have an active union, Solidaritatea Sanitară (Medical Solidarity).    

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

The integrated approach at the level of Community law regarding whistleblowers. And also the fact that the “threat” of infringement still prompts a reaction from our authorities, even if they sometimes delay this process of transposition. It highlights this subject even more, especially considering that, while we already had some specific legislation for it, it seemed to be known just by a small group of people. 

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? 

I don’t really have a clear answer regarding which authorities would be competent, because I think that an efficient implementation of this concept depends more on what an authority does not do. We should take into account the lack of trust in authorities, as we cannot ignore that it’s an important factor for whistleblowers in deciding if to act or not. For me, an efficient implementation and management of whistleblowing systems depends on several key questions:

  • How do we raise the ability of external channels (NGOs, media, unions) to protect these people, considering that most of the time they are reporting wrongdoings that also involve or are tolerated by the management of their institution? 
  • How can we understand what works and what doesn’t, and how can we fix, eliminate or change the ecosystem from inside a public institution that showed its limits in implementing the law no.571/2004? For example, I think it’s time to admit that, unfortunately, things like the ethics adviser or internal reporting mechanisms are not efficient. 
  • What do we do with all the existing administrative mechanisms if we get a change to clean the entire integrity system in the public administration with the transposition of this directive? Do we approach them as a system or just change some words here and there to finish the transposition?   

In order to answer not just at a theoretical level, I want to give a practical example.
Immediately after we launched our app for whistleblowers from the health system (https://funky.ong/de-garda/), we got a call from ANMCS and had a pretty relevant discussion on this subject. They told us that, as they were authorized to act in the domains mentioned by the whistleblowers in our platform, they already had tried to implement reporting channels for them. But they received almost no reports on their system and the feedback showed that the medical personnel did not trust institutional mechanisms, although they’re one of the most protected professions in this regard, of the dangers of reprisals. Their request to us was then to help them answer the problems that were within their purview (for example, reports on shortages of PPE), by offering them filtered reports about problems in the health system – obviously, after we took every precaution to ensure there was no way to identify the whistleblowers who wanted anonymity. What we understood from that exchange is that, if we want to have an efficient whistleblowing system, we should somehow acknowledge where we currently are in terms of trust and to try to offer those instruments that can address people’s fears and vulnerabilities.    

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

Call me an optimist, but I believe this perception is already changing, slowly. Look how people see the examples of whistleblowers shown in the documentary Collective. We can learn what works and what doesn’t in changing this perception. I don’t think that awareness campaigns work at all. By the way, from the evaluations on the subject of whistleblowing done in the National Anti-corruption Strategy it was already obvious that those campaigns were mostly water under the bridge. So I wouldn’t waste money on them anymore. I do think that examples work. It’s not just making whistleblowers into heroes, but showing that the system can work. That after we report a problem, something happens – a press article, some changes. I think it helps more than any awareness campaign.

How does technology help whistleblowing?

From our experience, technology helps a lot, especially to ensure anonymity. The biggest challenge is to bring more than just a safe reporting channel. Technology can also facilitate important elements like:

  • Connecting whistleblowers with journalists or NGO workers that can help;
  • Creating a community, to avoid that feeling of being alone against everybody, and to let you know there are others who say the same things as you;
  • Checking and collecting data that can show the magnitude of the problem signaled by the whistleblower. For example, if we receive a report that PPE is missing in hospital X, we can check in the procurements database if we can find additional information. Or we could see if others are signaling the same problem, and then we could have advocacy actions at the level of central institutions or, if it’s a specific problem, it can be covered by journalists, etc. 

From the same series: