Departments accused of ‘slow and inconsistent’ progress with civil-service whistleblowing

NAO calls for greater analysis of investigation outcomes and insight on the experiences of officials who sound the alarm over concerns
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By Jim Dunton

19 Dec 2023

Government departments and agencies have more work to do to ensure that officials who raise concerns over wrongdoing in their workplace are treated fairly and that those issues raised are learned from, according to the National Audit Office.

The public-spending watchdog said progress with whistleblowing arrangements across government is “slow and inconsistent” and that, while organisations have put support for officials who sound the alarm in place, not enough is known about their experiences.

According to the report, an average of 313 whistleblowing concerns were raised with departments each year between 2019-20 and 2021-22. The NAO said 40% related to fraud and that 77% of cases involved one of five departments – the Ministry of Defence, Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs, the Home Office and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The report said that over the three-year period wrongdoing was found to have taken place in 76 cases, equivalent to 12% of completed investigations. In 49 of the cases where wrongdoing was identified disciplinary action was taken or changes made to policy and procedures. But the NAO said that in 20 cases it was not known what action had been taken, while no action was taken in the remaining seven cases.

The report found that, while organisations have put support for whistleblowers in place, little information was available on the extent to which those who raised the alarm felt supported. It said that around two-thirds of 78 officials who raised concerns anonymously had done so out of “fear of reprisal, recrimination or victimisation”.

It said there was no centrally collated information on complaints from whistleblowers of intimidation or victimisation as a result of raising a concern.

The report also said the results of recent Civil Service People Surveys had seen 12 departments and 23 other civil service organisations record a “statistically significant drop” in scores for staff agreeing that it is “safe to challenge the way things are done” in their organisation. The report said the Department for Education had seen a 14-percentage-point drop in that score between 2020 and 2022.

The NAO flagged recent reports that suggested scandals could have been limited by a more positive culture of whistleblowing in government. Among them were Sue Gray’s Partygate probe, Sir Nigel Boardman’s 2021 review of the development and use of supply chain finance in government, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report on ethical leadership in public life. The CSPL made specific reference to the Windrush scandal.

Among its recommendations, the watchdog is urging departments to collect better information on whistleblowing and what happens to whistleblowers after they report concerns – including determining the extent of complaints of intimidation or victimisation.

It says departments should view all concerns as an opportunity to learn, even in cases where no wrongdoing is found, and is calling on the centre of government to do more to help departments learn from each other.

NAO head Gareth Davies said it was clear that departments had more to do to support staff raising concerns and to learn important lessons.

“Whistleblowing is a vital organisational protection,” he said. “It provides a way for organisations to hear concerns about serious wrongdoing that may not otherwise be discovered, and a number of recent high-profile cases underline why it’s important that effective arrangements are in place.

“Significant challenges remain for government in learning from past cases, improving the experience of whistleblowers and empowering people to come forward with their concerns.”

Public Accounts Committee chair Dame Meg Hillier said high-performing organisations should not be fearful of whistleblowers, even if the process was challenging.

But she said that data from last year’s Civil Service People Survey suggesting that only 52% respondents thought it was safe to challenge the way things were done in their department did not reassure her there is a culture where people can speak up if they see a problem.

“Departments must seek feedback from whistleblowers to improve their experience, so others are more likely to speak up,” she said.

“They must also better understand whether organisational changes are actually being made where needed to address the concerns raised.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said handling whistleblowing was a delegated matter for departments, but remained a priority for the civil service

“We are committed to high standards of conduct and encourage any member of staff who has a concern, or suspects wrongdoing, to speak up,” they said.  

“Whistleblowing is taken seriously and there are procedures in place for anyone within the civil service to raise concerns.

“We regularly review how to speed up investigations and procedures and we have recently set up an online training offer as well as a dedicated whistleblowing practitioners community for departments to share advice on.”

They added that the Cabinet Office is committed to working with departments to review annual data collection to improve the quality and breadth of the data set, including providing clarity and consensus on the categorisation of cases and outcomes.

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