Civil service whistleblowing: despite positive steps, there's a way to go to ensure officials feel able to speak out

While steps to improve data on whistleblowing are welcome, civil servants need more reassurance that they won't be penalised for challenging wrongdoing, says Tom Casey of the independent whistleblowing charity​ Public Concern At Work

By Tom Casey

28 Jul 2016

From paying benefits to issuing driving licenses, running prisons to collecting taxes, the work of the civil service has such a tangible impact on so many aspects of our lives that any concerns over the way it is run are necessarily issues of public interest. When civil servants report problems, those concerns should be dealt with quickly and effectively to minimise the impact on the wider public. And, as one of the nation’s largest employers that is also accountable to the public, the civil service should be leading by example in the way it promotes and responds to whistleblowing. 

Earlier this year, MPs on Public Accounts Committee expressed disappointment that the Cabinet Office, the department that manages the civil service, had shown a lack of urgency in its attempts to improve its handling of whistleblowing.

The government's response sought to allay the committee's fears, with the Cabinet Office committing to a process of "continuous improvement" which will see each department regularly report on whistleblowing complaints and publish case studies to encourage staff to raise their concerns.

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Public Concern at Work welcomes this approach. Efforts to improve the way organisations deal with whistleblowing complaints and change perceptions on how whistleblowers are treated require ongoing commitments. Meaningful change cannot be achieved overnight. 

"Meaningful change cannot be achieved overnight"

Collecting and publishing whistleblowing data is not only of use to management but also to those staff who may have negative perceptions of whistleblowing. Regular reporting of data from each department should help to normalise the action of whistleblowing.

As workers begin to see whistleblowing as a common practice, and see that their employers are actively promoting it as such, anxiety around speaking out is likely to subside. Changes to culture and perception require a gradual evolution in attitudes, brought about by consistent reinforcement that whistleblowing is welcomed and that those who speak out will be protected.

For the first time, civil service whistleblowing data has been published and the government has admitted there was a wide variation in what data had been reported. As these reports become more standardised, there will be opportunities to analyse what they show and identify trends that may be indicative of systemic problems with whistleblowing processes. Such trends will, of course, take some time to become apparent.

"A single instance in which a whistleblower is badly treated can undermine all the efforts made beforehand. A zero-tolerance approach to criticism is therefore crucial"

That said, the government also reported that the majority of whistleblowing complaints were made anonymously. The prevalence of anonymous reporting is indicative of a perception among workers that those who report concerns are at risk of reprisal, a view that is by no means restricted to the civil service.

It is easy to understand why such a perception can exist. There have sadly been many cases where whistleblowers have faced awful consequences after speaking out –  and it is only natural that witnesses to these instances feel a sense of trepidation when thinking about blowing the whistle.

The only way to tackle these perceptions is by repetitive reassurance that whistleblowers will be supported, and will not face repercussions for challenging wrongdoing. A single instance in which a whistleblower is badly treated can undermine all the efforts made beforehand. A zero-tolerance approach to criticism is therefore crucial – and, where it occurs, those responsible must be disciplined.

Reporting anonymously also presents challenges for those who are receiving the information. It can make it harder for effective investigations to take place, as those tasked with looking into the problem are unable to return to the whistleblower for more information, and there will be no opportunity for feedback. 

Crucially, if the organisation does not know who the individual is they cannot protect them or demonstrate that they treat those who raise concerns well.

The government has highlighted the critical role that departmental boards will play in scrutinising data collected on whistleblowing cases, and has revised its Audit and Risk Assurance Committee handbook so that a greater emphasis is placed on whistleblowing as a means to challenge malpractice.

The Public Concern at Work whistleblowing code of practice, a code for internal whistleblowing arrangements that has been endorsed by the Financial Conduct Authority for the finance sector and 46 other private, voluntary and public sector employers), lays out some key principles for auditing and reviewing such data.

A key principle is to bring context, and examine a number of sources of information, to create a clearer picture of how the arrangements work in practice.

This means taking into account: a record of the number and types of concerns raised and the outcomes of investigations; feedback from individuals who have used the arrangements; any complaints of victimisation; any complaints of failures to maintain confidentiality; a review of other existing reporting mechanisms, such as fraud, incident reporting or health and safety reports; a review of other adverse incidents that could have been identified by staff (e.g. consumer complaints, publicity or wrongdoing identified by third parties); a review of any relevant litigation; and a review of staff awareness, trust and confidence in the arrangements.

As ever, while changes to policies are helpful, it is the implementation and adherence to those policies that will yield the desired change. The Cabinet Office is in a key position to highlight the Whistleblowing Code of Practice, and make sure it is seen as an important document for government departments and their executive agencies to follow. 

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