CSO Accountability: How effective are whistle-blower systems?

Accountable Now

Our blog discusses strengthening accountability and transparency at the global and national level. Here we present some take-aways from the direct impact group’s interview with top CSO accountability experts about implementing whistle-blower systems.

In 2016, Accountable Now tasked the direct impact group with an assessment of 40 international CSOs in six different areas of accountability. The study demonstrated the achievements of the civil society sector, as well as addressing areas for improvement in CSO accountability.


Based on the results of the study, direct impact group’s Ronald Pinto conducted an interview with four top CSO accountability experts from World Vision International (Robert Nelson and Ryan Greer), CBM (Richard Ongera), and the direct impact group (Markus Hesse) about whistle-blower systems.


Below are some of their take-aways, which we have condensed and paraphrased for brevity. Please find the original interview here in its entirety.


What is a whistle-blower system and why is it important?


Markus Hesse pointed out that the increasing complexity of operational processes in international organisations has led to a growing temptation for the misuse of funds. “A whistle-blower system offers an anonymous channel for every stakeholder – be it staff, local partners, beneficiaries, suppliers or the public – to establish contact with the organisation’s internal audit function and to share their observations.” Recent cross sectoral studies show that over 70% of fraud and corruption cases are detected by internal and external tip offs.


Read more about how CSO leadership reacts to corruption in our blog article by Jeremy Sandbrook.


What was the main reason you decided on such a system? 

For Robert Nelson, the main aim was to encourage reporting. World Vision was not seeing results with their hotline based in the UK, due to lack of access in many regions. “The volume of reporting was almost non-existent. We looked at the underlying causes for corruption and re-evaluated the hotline programme. That’s why World Vision International mandated the implementation of a new, web based system.”


CBM chose to implement an online system in order to help witnesses report fraud anonymously, to alleviate their fear of being exposed. According to Richard Ongera, “at that time, we reworked our accountability processes and systems in order to comply with the Accountable Now Accountability Commitments. We saw the need for a system that helped our organisation detect fraud by providing access to a complaint system in an easy and available manner.”


Did you have any concerns?

Ryan Greer shared that one of World Vision’s main concerns was the kind of culture they were creating within the organisation. “We were worried that the hotline could be misused as a complaint mechanism rather than addressing important issues of possible corruption or fraud.” Richard Ongera also agreed that the issue of false or unsubstantiated accusations had been a concern.


Robert Nelson added that there was concern about a high volume of complaints and the potential problem of getting overwhelmed. World Vision thus, “phased the roll out and started implementing the system one region at a time.”


What were the biggest issues in the implementation phase? How did you manage to overcome any challenges?

According to Robert Nelson, cultural acceptance of the system was an issue. “One of the biggest obstacles was employee concerns about retaliation, particularly in cultures where retaliation by managers may be considered ordinary business practice.” World Vision overcame this by enabling anonymous reporting and, “providing assistance and support to the whistle-blower and assuring them that the organisation is 100 percent dedicated to protecting people against retaliation”.


How are the results so far?

While at CBM the first year was a bit slow, educating people about the new system gradually led to more complaints being submitted. Richard Onegra says that, “today the results are good and we came to know about things that we would have never known without the web-based system.”

World Vision’s representatives expressed a desire to see more complaints being submitted, with Ryan Greer adding, “we definitely want more people to be aware of the hotline and to feel comfortable using it for reporting across the organisation.”


Advice for other organisations

Markus Hesse said that it was important, with regard to change management, to have a strong emphasis on organisational culture. “In my experience, introducing any whistle-blower system is not just an IT solution. It is a people solution and this should be reflected in the implementation as well.”

Robert Nelson pointed out that the concerns raised by some in leadership about the potential for a high number of unsubstantiated cases using up resources, did not materialise. “It is important to look at the facts and reports to see the added value.”


Has your organisation set up a whistle-blower system? Were your experiences similar or did you have a different approach? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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