Whistleblowing: Civil service 'needs culture change' to create a 'speak-up environment'

MPs bemoan continued "lack of cross-government leadership" and the varying approaches of departments

By Jim Dunton

28 May 2024

The Cabinet Office has been urged to be more proactive in creating a civil service culture that supports officials who raise concerns – including a call to conduct spot checks on departmental data.

Members of parliament's Public Accounts Committee said the centre of government is still missing key metrics on whistleblowing in the civil service and lacks assurance over the completeness and consistency of figures reported by departments.

The committee said some progress has been made on improving data related to whistleblowing since its damning 2016 report on the issue. However, the MPs said the overall progress is "disappointing" eight years on.

The Cabinet Office is responsible for overseeing whistleblowing arrangements across the civil service but it has no formal role in assuring the adequacy of whistleblowing arrangements across government. Departments set their own arrangements and procedures. Some departments set whistleblowing arrangements for their arm’s-length bodies too.

In their report, which was published over the bank holiday weekend, MPs said there is a continuing "lack of cross-government leadership on whistleblowing" that has resulted in varying approaches across departments.

They said missing data about ongoing cases and the length of time investigations take have made it difficult to understand whether investigations are taking too long and – if so – why. MPs also expressed concerns about a lack of requirements to gather feedback from whistleblowers to find out whether they are being treated fairly.

According to the report – which follows a National Audit Office investigation published in December – civil service organisations notified the Cabinet Office that a total of 939 whistleblowing concerns had been lodged between 2019-20 and 2021-22.

Forty percent of those whistleblowing concerns related to fraud and 77% involved just five departments: the Ministry of Defence; the Department for Work and Pensions; HM Revenue and Customs; the Home Office; and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The report pointed to Civil Service People Survey data from 2022 suggesting that only 52% of officials felt comfortable challenging the way things are done in their organisation – significantly below the 61.5% figure for the National Health Service.

MPs said the report "finds that it is clear the civil service has more to do to promote a culture supportive to whistleblowing, and calls for a cultural change to raise awareness and provide assurance on whistleblowing processes and create a ‘speak up’ environment".

Among their recommendations, PAC members called on the the Cabinet Office to set out what additional whistleblowing data it intends to collect from departments to better understand challenges and opportunities.

They also called for the Cabinet Office to start conducting "spot checks" on departments' whistleblowing data to ensure figures are being reported accurately.

Other demands include setting out plans for improved analysis of existing data, such as more granular information on the kinds of fraud whistleblowing concerns are raised about – something MPs said the Cabinet Office does not fully understand at present.

PAC said it also wants the Cabinet Office to require all departments to collate feedback from whistleblowers at the end of individual processes.

The Cabinet Office said whistleblowing is taken seriously across the civil service and that efforts continue to establish and maintain effective mechanisms for individuals to raise concerns within their organisations as part of a safe and a supportive environment.

It added that it welcomed the work of PAC in ensuring the government's whistleblowing approach is as robust as possible.

This story was updated at 17:00 on 28 May 2024 to include a response from the Cabinet Office

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