Two faces of disclosure

18 July 2013

Last month Edward Snowden, a former low-level NSA technician revealed to the world what it already knew: that the shadowy arm of the world’s most powerful government is keeping tabs on its citizens.

The more we know, the less we have to take on faith. And when wrongdoing is detected, a more complete picture is available to the authorities in pursuing whatever course of action they decide.

Wouldn't every client wish for a complete picture of where its money is being spent, and what is happening on its project? Probably. There have been notorious cases where increased inspection or other oversight would have saved a collapse.

But swing this the other way. A whistleblower has, not for the first time in recent history, revealed to the public what is being done in its name, with its tax dollars.

As a responsible client, the state should delight in the opportunity to establish itself as a transparent democracy with an informed public whose interest it serves.

Instead probably begins the deranged pursuit of a true public servant.

The tunnelling industry too is not without the whispers of the dangers of being a whistleblower. And accusations have been leveled against some of the major projects of the world of covering up shoddy practice with layoffs and media-gags.

These are often no secret in the industry, just as no one is surprised by the revelation that a nest of spies is capable of lying both to country and Congress.

And nothing is likely to change. Why should anyone believe a future statement that the NSA has ended its intrusive surveillance? And why should anyone believe that high-profile projects would not, like any slighted government entity, try to save face (and further costs) first and foremost.

It's important to make sure whistleblowers do not stand alone. The tunnelling industry should add its collective voice to the individual when he or she speaks up over less than best practice.

Civil engineers have a too-often under appreciated role in creating the infrastructure that supports society. Tunnelling in particular is quite literally underground and out of the public eye, giving tunnel engineers an even greater responsibility to speak up when something is wrong, and to inform an unaware public who depend on it more than they know.

Besides, unless tolls, a raise in bills or taxes, or the temporary possession of a park is involved, the public does not necessarily have a vested interest in how a project is constructed, let alone worker safety conditions on site. Or an appreciation of deeper issues that such problems might indicate.

It falls solely to the civil engineers then to make sure the work they do is good, the standards held by their employers are high and that the working environment is safe.

Engineers and workers are proud of what they do, and unlikely to jeopardise a project without good cause.

The industry can be better by standing by whistleblower.