From the outside looking in, it seems to have been a bad week for civil servants working in Westminster and Whitehall. We have had weeks now of allegations of bullying against current and former ministers towards both MPs and civil servants. It is not clear what the prime minister knew or did not know about both sets of allegations, though the government has moved to investigate both complaints that have been made, and to support other civil servants who feel ‘traumatised’ by the alleged behaviour.
It is worth reflecting on the place civil service whistleblowers have within the prime minister’s stated aim of "integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level".
A wise prime minister would conclude that, to achieve this aim, they would need to ensure that civil servants were confident to raise concerns where they witness wrongdoing, malpractice or unethical behaviour. Whistleblowing is key to detecting wrongdoing such as fraud and corruption: studies have shown 42% of all fraud is detected via tips, of which 55% are known to have come from employees.
It is unlawful for an employer to victimise a whistleblower for blowing the whistle on wrongdoing or malpractice that was raised in the public interest. It is in everyone’s interest to ensure when a civil servant speaks out, they will be listened to, and the response from their managers will not be to retaliate. The latest bullying allegations are a blow to this aim because for every civil servant who is seen to be mistreated, others may stay silent.
Whistleblowers in the heart of government are often victimised or ignored. In recent years, there has been plenty of evidence for concern. The investigation into lockdown breaches in Downing Street paints an ugly picture of whistleblowing where “some staff had witnessed or been subjected to behaviours at work which they had felt concerned about but at times felt unable to raise properly.” Where concerns were raised they were laughed at and those raising them were mocked.
Earlier this summer the Foreign Affairs Select Committee released its own damning conclusions on whistleblowing culture, this time at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office when it examined British withdrawal from Afghanistan.
They found that “the degree of unhappiness among FCDO officials points […] to the absence of an adequate process for officials to express concerns about policy without fearing damage to their careers”. Many of the committee’s findings were only possible because whistleblowers raised their concerns.
Setting the tone for managers and others in an organisation is important, so it’s welcome that the prime minister has identified integrity and honesty as values he wants to be at the core of his government.
Words need to be accompanied by wider reforms. Civil servants calling Protect’s advice line identify a complex system: most departments have a whistleblowing policy and nominated officer outside of their line managers to raise concerns. But if the concerns raised are not addressed by management, the whistleblower may look to raise them outside the department. The Civil Service Commission deals with breaches of the civil service code so the whistleblower may struggle to find a way to address wider wrongdoing, policy concerns or ministerial malpractice. “HR” issues – bullying, discrimination and harassment – are specifically excluded from being raised under the civil service whistleblowing procedure and won’t be considered by the Commission. If the department response is to ignore concerns, it is unsurprising that some civil servants are turning to MPs and the media to raise them.
"A clear and consistent message is needed from the top that it is everyone’s duty to speak up about wrongdoing, that managers have a duty to listen and that whistleblowers will be protected"
Whistleblowers should have the option to raise a concern with someone outside of their own department or the Civil Service Commission. The Law Commission has recommended an independent statutory commissioner with broad powers to investigate public interest disclosures, along with a public interest defence for whistleblowing on national security issues.
Each government department should examine their own whistleblowing culture and appoint a senior civil servant as their whistleblowing champion responsible for leading the culture change and ensuring that departmental whistleblowing arrangements are working well in practice. Staff surveys, feedback from whistleblowers and an annual review of the arrangements could all ensure a good whistleblowing culture is embedded.
There should be additional training provided to all those who work in the civil service and in support roles in central government about how to raise, and how to handle concerns, including concerns beyond breaches of the code. A clear and consistent message is needed from the top that it is everyone’s duty to speak up about wrongdoing, that managers have a duty to listen and respond to concerns raised with them, and that whistleblowers will be protected from any retribution.
There are no quick fixes to changing the whistleblowing culture, but whistleblowing reforms can help restore integrity and accountability in government.
Andrew Pepper-Parsons is head of policy at te whistleblowing charity Protect