Fear in public service lamented

The critics of the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) various projects in Samoa say they have support both outside and inside of Government, but public servants are fearful to speak up.

Recently, during the A.D.B’s brief visit to Samoa, controversy over their projects affecting land rights resurfaced. Fiu Mataese Elisara is one of several matai challenging the bank on its consultation practices of projects that could leave Samoan people worse off. 

He told the Samoa Observer there are Government staff members who agree with him but won’t say so publically.

“If you sit in government, you feel obligated to defend what the government is pushing,” Fiu said. “And unfortunately we become lesser human beings by our agendas being defined from where we sit, in terms of whether you are in government of outside of government.”

With Samoa being a small country, Fiu said he can understand why public servants don’t speak out. 

“If you lose your job there is no way you can quickly get hold of another one, that will fund the needs of your families, of your children. We fully understand because the scope of employment in Samoa is not that great, so people are trying to protect their own jobs.”

He said close to 17,000 people work for Government, which means a lot of people are unlikely to publically oppose it. But privately, many sympathise with Fiu and his partners, and with their concerns over A.D.B.

“What we are finding is that many of those people in Government are talking privately to us to congratulate what we are trying to do and encourage us in our efforts.

“Of course sometimes we get very annoyed at people coming and telling us about these things when they are not taking up courage to show their opinions, but we appreciate where they are coming from.”

Vaipou Fetuliai Lagaaia, the Director of the Legal Division of the Samoa Audit Office said fear of being named as a whistle blower is indeed a factor.

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Currently, the Government is in the process of enacting changes to the Public Bodies Performance and Accountability Amendment Act 2014, which extended whistle blowing protecting across all government ministries and public bodies.

Last December, the Public Service Commission urged the Government to move faster on the legislation in their sector plan review for 2017-2018. That sector plan expired in July 2018 and a new five year plan is scheduled for launch in February.

It included the “development of whistle blower legislation in line with establishment of Anti-Corruption body” in a list of areas for consideration in the new sector plan.

The Attorney General has yet to respond to a request for progress of the legislation.

Vaipou said in the absence of holistic legislation in place, different ministries have their own provisions in place, including the Public Service Commission which supervises all ministries. 

“There is a process for reporting of offences and breaches of P.S.C code of conduct,” Vaipou explained. “Since Public Bodies are not under the P.S.C such as corporations, they have their own principal legislations and self-regulated policies that guide their own work.”

He said hopefully once the whistle blower act is firmly in place, more people will be willing to report on suspicious or illegal activities within their ministries. 

But fear and the stigma of being faikala (gossiper) is still very strong.

“There is also that fear of repercussion and reputational risks should someone speak up against their office, especially if it’s against someone with authority,” Vaipou said.

“Some may not want to be named or be seen as raising the red flag but prefer to report a problem and stay anonymous.”

When people do report anonymously, the Audit Office’s investigations include checks on the source’s credibility.

“Some sources are credible and substantiated by evidence, others are unfounded or hearsay.

“In such cases we do a due diligence review to ascertain the truth of the matter and obtain reliable sources during preliminary investigation stage before any serious steps are taken.”

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