Civil service chief John Manzoni: Whitehall's treatment of whistleblowers is getting better

Civil service's anti-whistleblower culture is changing, says chief executive John Manzoni, as he promises new data on concerns raised by staff – and faces tough questioning from MPs on extending public interest protections to private providers

By matt.foster

07 Dec 2015

The chief executive of the civil service has defended the way government deals with whistleblowers, after a committee of MPs urged departments to do more to protect officials who raise concerns in the public interest.

A report published last year by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the treatment of some whistleblowers by government departments had been “shocking”, with officials often unsure who to go to with their concerns, and a lack of transparency and consistency in the way government bodies respond to issues raised by staff.

That report prompted the Treasury to promise that HR directors in each department would be handed direct responsibility for overseeing whistleblowing policies, and would be expected to "report on a regular basis to their departmental board" on how those policies were working in practice. But the government rejected a call to extend similar protections to staff working for private providers.

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Updating PAC on Monday, Manzoni acknowledged that a civil service mentality which had traditionally discouraged public interest disclosures would be "a difficult thing to change".

"To some degree I think the culture is still there," he told the committee. "But I do think it’s changing. Quite a lot has been done to change it.

"For instance, we’ve issued a Leadership Statement which has been bought into across the board. This is the first time we’ve actually stated that we need to have open and inspiring and confident leaders who encourage feedback...

"We’ve emphasised the need for whistleblowing to take place. We’ve changed policies, we’ve changed guidance documents. Actually, I think we’re taking a number of credible steps to address this issue. Can I say that it’s changed completely? Absolutely not. But do I think we’re on the right track? I absolutely do."

However, Manzoni faced tough questioning from Conservative MP Stephen Phillips over the decision not to use Whitehall's commercial clout with private sector providers to insist that firms improve their own whistleblowing practices.

Phillips pointed out that "a very significant proportion of public services" were now being delivered through the private and voluntary sector.

"There is no guarantee at all that those private sector and third sector organisations have in place whistleblowing policies at all, let alone whistleblowing policies which encourage their employees to make protected disclosures in the public interest," the Tory MP added.

In its response to PAC, the Treasury argued that while government “encourages” arm’s length bodies and contractors to have “effective whistleblowing policies”, the level of administration involved in keeping an eye on providers at a local level would not be “proportionate or effective”.

The civil service chief executive said there was "a judgement to be made" over whether government could realistically expect to extend whistleblowing policies to outside firms.

He added: "I think we need to start by getting our own house in order and then we can maybe have a conversation about what happens from there."

But, in response to a suggestion from Phillips, he agreed that it "might be sensible to put some conditions into our standard contract".

"Just the beginning" 

Elsewhere, Manzoni revealed that departments' 2015/16 annual reports – expected to be published in the spring – will for the first time include a section on the status of whistleblowing in departments and arm's length bodies.

And he said government had now started collecting data on the number of concerns raised by staff – information he pointed out previously "didn’t exist" – with the first batch of transparency data expected on January 7 next year.

"We’ve initiated a data collection tool which is starting to show how many whistleblowing cases are taking place – there were 66 between April and September," Manzoni said. "We’re starting to get that transparency, and that’s just the beginning of the process to start opening this up."

Alison Stanley, who heads up civil service employee policy for the Cabinet Office, told the committee that all but two government departments had now adopted a model policy on whistleblowing.

HR directors in every government department were, she said, now expected to be "accountable for the policy, for the collection of the data, and for ensuring that the internal risk and audit committees review the effectiveness of the policies" – with the Cabinet Office expecting regular updates.

She added: "The obligation is to do it at least once a year. In a couple of departments we know it is being done on a more regular basis."

Manzoni told the committee that there would also be a new, civil service-wide induction process for departmental non-executives, which the civil service chief executive promised would emphasise the importance of adequate protection for whistleblowers.

Non-execs – drawn largely from the private sector – sit on departmental boards in a bid to broaden the outside experience available to Whitehall and sharpen scrutiny. At present, the induction process for non-execs is left to individual departments, but Manzoni said there would soon be a "consistent approach across government".

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