Media Statement: Report of investigation into whistle blower treatment within the Ministry of Transport
State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes has today published the report of the investigation into the treatment of Public Servants within the Ministry of Transport who raised concerns about the conduct of jailed fraudster Joanne Harrison.
Mr Hughes has also announced that the State Services Commission is developing options for how the Protected Disclosures Act can be modernised and made more user friendly, and issued standards for government agencies on effective systems for staff to raise concerns.
The investigation was carried out by former Deputy State Services Commissioner Sandi Beatie QSO.
The investigation is in response to public concern that Public Servants raised issues about Ms Harrison’s activities within the Ministry of Transport and subsequently lost their jobs in a restructure Ms Harrison was involved in. This investigation process was started by the Secretary for Transport, and was subsequently taken over by the State Services Commissioner after the affected staff raised concerns with him directly.
“It is vital that Public Servants can raise concerns about suspected wrong-doing safely and without fear of punishment or reprisal,” Mr Hughes said.
Ms Beatie has found that four staff within the Ministry of Transport raised concerns about Joanne Harrison’s behaviour and then suffered disadvantage in processes Ms Harrison was involved in. However no staff were made redundant because they raised concerns.
“These Public Servants should never have been disadvantaged because they did the right thing,” said Mr Hughes.
“I am making sure these people get redress for what happened to them,” he said.
Redundancies of former staff in the Ministry’s Finance Team
Ms Beatie has found that three former staff in the Ministry’s finance team raised concerns about Ms Harrison’s conduct and issues with contracts and invoices on several occasions. This includes one staff member who formally raised concerns with a senior member of the Ministry’s legal team.
Ms Beatie has found that these staff were not made redundant because of them raising concerns about Joanne Harrison. She has found that the redundancies were due to the Ministry moving to an automated accounts payable process. This was a planned move that was legitimate for the Ministry to pursue and was properly authorised. Joanne Harrison had no control over this decision.
The investigation has however found that these staff suffered disadvantage and unnecessary hurt and humiliation due to the process that was followed when they were made redundant, and that Joanne Harrison provided advice around this process.
The process that was followed resulted in the staff members being made redundant just before Christmas, and ultimately around seven and a half months in advance of the new automated accounts payable system coming into effect. There was additional hurt and humiliation for these staff members caused by the fact they had to train a temporary staff member to perform their jobs, and one had an offer of further employment made, and then withdrawn.
“While decisions were properly made by the appropriate finance group managers and endorsed by the Chief Executive, the process followed and particularly the timing of the redundancies was based on advice from Joanne Harrison,” said Mr Hughes.
“While there is no definitive evidence that Joanne Harrison engineered the process to exit these staff, the convergence of events that took place and her involvement in providing advice gives me cause for concern,” Mr Hughes said.
Ms Beatie has recommended that these staff receive an apology and that the State Services Commissioner work with them to reach agreement on appropriate compensation.
“I have met with these former staff members and their families. I thanked them for their public service and apologised to them for the treatment they received after raising genuine and well-founded concerns,” Mr Hughes said.
“I repeat that apology publicly,” he said.
“I have agreed with them a package of redress and settlement for the disadvantage they suffered,” he said.
Remuneration of former member of the Ministry’s Legal Team
Ms Beatie has found that a former member of the Ministry’s legal team was disadvantaged by Ms Harrison taking direct action to prevent them from receiving additional remuneration they had been recommended to receive. The person involved had pursued concerns that were raised about Ms Harrison’s activities, taking the matter up with the Ministry’s Chief Executive and Ms Harrison herself.
This person subsequently went to work in another public agency on secondment. While on their secondment they were recommended to receive a pay rise by the agency they were seconded to due to their high performance in the role. Ms Harrison took deliberate steps to prevent this person from receiving the pay rise.
“Based on the facts set out in the report, this has every appearance of being punishment for this person raising legitimate concerns through appropriate channels,” Mr Hughes. “Using public office to punish someone in this way is inappropriate and unacceptable.”
“I have written to this person to thank them for the action they took and apologise on behalf of the Public Service for what happened to them as a result,” Mr Hughes said.
“I have referred the matter to the Secretary for Transport to work with the person involved to remedy the situation and make up for the loss of income they suffered because of Joanne Harrison’s actions.”
Other individuals not related to whistle-blowing
Ms Beatie has also identified two other cases where individual Ministry of Transport staff may have been treated badly by Ms Harrison. These were not related to whistle-blowing and are outside the investigation’s terms of reference.”
“Ms Beatie was concerned about what she heard and has recommended the Secretary for Transport look into these cases,” Mr Hughes said.
“I have referred this matter to Mr Mersi and asked him to look into what happened and whether the Ministry met its obligations as a good employer,” he said.
Improving whistle-blowing systems in public sector agencies
Ms Beatie has made recommendations for steps public sector agencies can take to support their staff to raise concerns safely and easily.
“I have today published standards for public sector agencies on having effective systems for their staff to raise and escalate issues or concerns, including under the Protected Disclosures Act” said Mr Hughes.
“I am also recommending to the Government that the Protected Disclosures Act be reviewed and updated,” he said.
“This Act is now 17 years old and it no longer reflects international best practice. We need to update it to make it more user friendly for people making disclosures and introduce proper reporting and monitoring requirements.”
“Last year I directed every Public Service Chief Executive to review their Protected Disclosure Act policies and processes and internal processes for escalation of issues or concerns.
“Every agency needs to have clear, easily accessible systems for Public Servants to raise concerns, and importantly, they need to make sure their staff know they are there and how to use them if they need to,” Mr Hughes said.
“SSC will be engaging with all the Chief Executives on the progress they are making with updating their policies and systems, and communicating this to their staff.”
The State Services Commission is part of a research programme into Australasian whistle-blowing policies and practices called “Whistling while they Work 2” being led by leading academic Prof AJ Brown from Griffith University in Australia, with participation in New Zealand from the Office of the Ombudsman and Victoria University.
“This research is going to give us a baseline assessment of where New Zealand’s whistle-blowing systems are currently at and identify areas we can improve and strengthen both our practices and our legislation,” Mr Hughes said.
The total cost of this investigation is $38,805.20 (excl GST).
The investigation report refers to a temporary staff member engaged by the Ministry of Transport and describes them as being an overseas qualified accountant. To clarify, the temporary staff member holds both overseas and New Zealand qualifications.