Afghanistan whistleblower calls for civil service code reform

Ex-FCDO official says civil service whistleblowing system is inadequate
Whistleblowing procedures are initially handled by departments. Photo: Adobe Stock

By Tevye Markson

08 Jun 2022

An ex-Foreign Office official who blew the whistle on the department’s “chaotic” handling of last year’s Afghanistan evacuation has called for an overhaul of the system for reporting wrongdoing in the civil service, saying existing mechanisms “lack rigour”.

Raphael Marshall, who spoke out in December against the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Officet’s handling of the Afghanistan crisis in August, said the civil service code must be updated to strengthen whistleblowing systems in Whitehall

Marshall, who was an HEO-grade desk officer at the FCDO during the Kabul crisis, has called for the government to revamp the civil service code to make civil servants’ responsibility to be effective clearer in a ConservativeHome opinion piece.

Marshall wrote to FCDO permanent secretary Sir Philip Barton in August, stating that the flaws in the department’s Afghanistan crisis response amounted to breaches of the code and that he intended to resign to provide evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee. He said Barton met him the same day and appointed a senior diplomat to investigate.

“In this regard, he fulfilled his obligations to the letter,” Marshall said.

The investigation concluded that there had been no breach of the civil service code.

Marshall then sent written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee in December, saying that efforts to evacuate vulnerable Afghans during the fall of Kabul this summer were undermined by understaffing, unclear guidance and poor processes.

Marshall's concerns were later backed up by another whistleblower, FCDO Grade 6 official Josie Stewart, who in March called the evacuation “badly managed and too focused on managing reputation risk and political fallout rather than the actual crisis and associated human tragedy”.

Responding to Marshall’s complaint at the Foreign Affairs Committee in December, Barton said: “A very senior diplomat who had not been involved at all looked at that and found no breach.

“She did point to some issues, but she did say very clearly that, under huge pressure, people had done their very best to deliver outcomes around the evacuation.

“Overall, I think some things he said are the sort of things we will look at in our lesson learning. Other things I do not think are fair.”

Marshall said this response shows the issues with the current whistleblowing system in government.

“Of course, many people worked very, very hard,” he said. “However, ‘people worked hard’ is not a coherent response to the structural problem that thousands of emails from the UK’s former allies were not even read, and decisions as to who to evacuate were made both too slowly and highly arbitrarily.

“Ironically, one reason many people worked so hard is because the FCDO failed to allocate sufficient staff.”

Marshall said Barton’s comments suggested the perm sec believed the civil service code whistleblowing structure only applies to problems “arising from malice or deliberate impropriety”.

The ex-official said this interpretation “severely restricts” the utility of the whistleblowing mechanism as most mistakes in government come from good-faith mistakes rather than malice.

“I find this a puzzling reading of the code; the code calls for civil servants to ‘deal with the public and their affairs fairly, efficiently, promptly, effectively’,” Marshall said.

“The evacuation from Kabul was an urgent public affair and it’s difficult to argue the FCDO handled it fairly, efficiently, promptly or effectively.”

He added: “Ultimately, what the code actually says is less important than what it is perceived to say; the government should redraft the code to more explicitly require that the civil service be reasonably effective.”

One of the key issues with the code in its current form is that it is perceived to be primarily concerned with attributing blame to individuals and so there is no formal mechanism to address institutional failure, Marshall said.

“Sir Philip’s line was, in-essence, that by invoking the civil service code I was unfairly blaming colleagues who’d tried their very best,” he wrote.

“It would be useful for the government to clarify that institutions can collectively breach the code without anyone specific being responsible.”

Another concern is that departments are “responsible for marking their own homework”, Marshall said. He said Barton’s appointment of a senior diplomat to look into his concerns showed “appropriate seriousness” but the investigator had served in the Foreign Office for 30 years and “likely had at least some acquaintance with all the senior officials involved”.

“Without wanting to blame the investigator personally, it’s not clear this is compatible with a genuinely independent investigation,” Marshall said.

If civil servants are dissatisfied with the outcome of a department’s investigation, they can appeal to the Civil Service Commission.

Marshall said the government should strengthen the commission – pointing out that it has less than 20 full-time staff for almost half a million civil servants and only conducted four investigations in 2019-20.

Government should also empower the commission to “take an earlier role in investigations” and encourage more civil servants to raise concerns to the watchdog, Marshall said.

The prime minister announced plans to overhaul the civil service code following the release of Sue Gray’s stripped-back first report into Partygate in January but there has been no update since.

A government spokesperson said: “Our staff worked tirelessly to evacuate over 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight. This was the biggest UK mission of its kind in generations and followed months of intensive planning and collaboration between UK government departments. We are still working hard to assist the people of Afghanistan, having already helped over 4,600 individuals to leave the country since the end of the military evacuation.

“We carried out a thorough review to learn lessons from our withdrawal from Afghanistan and have drawn on many of the findings in our response to the conflict in Ukraine including introducing new systems for managing correspondence and increasing senior oversight of our operational and diplomatic response.”

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