Good government relies on good whistleblowing, so departments must be ready to listen

Without listening to whistleblowers, we are destined to lurch from scandal to crisis without learning from mistakes
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A report on whistleblowing from the National Audit Office published late last year reached the verdict that government “must do better” to address failures within the civil service. This follows on the heels of multiple calls from government watchdogs over the past ten years. And yet, progress to improve whistleblowing is moving at a snail’s pace. 

The NAO report describes progress as “slow and inconsistent” and says the lack of a joined-up approach to whistleblowing or of data collection across departments means there is no opportunity to learn or understand whether policies are actually working.

Most concerning is that only half (52%) of civil servants believe it is safe to challenge the way things are done. If whistleblowers do not feel safe, they may not raise concerns at all. So it’s disappointing that there is no consistent recording of whistleblower victimisation across government. Nor is feedback sought from whistleblowers who have used the process, despite this being standard practice in any other large organisation with sophisticated whistleblowing systems. 

Whistleblowers are essential to good government and challenge is vital in holding organisations to account. Recent scandals, including Greensill, Partygate and the British withdrawal from Afghanistan, showed that people inside government knew about wrongdoing but were too afraid to come forward. The NAO’s report found that around two thirds of officials who raised concerns anonymously had done so out of “fear of reprisal, recrimination or victimisation”.

When workers do raise concerns, too many face negative consequences. Protect’s research (cited in the NAO’s report) found that over half of those from the government sector who contacted our legal advice line had experienced a negative outcome as a result of speaking up. With the UK falling to its lowest ever position in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – which ranks countries by experts’ views of possible corruption in public services – it is vital that civil servants feel able to speak up and speak out over wrongdoing with confidence if we want to restore trust in the heart of government.

Every concern raised by a whistleblower is a gift of information to an employer. Whistleblowers’ twin fears – that raising concerns will lead to harm to themselves, or that raising concerns will be futile – are not adequately addressed by central government. With more than three hundred whistleblowing concerns raised every year by civil servants, a huge learning opportunity is being missed.

So, what needs to change?

The civil service lacks a truly independent external option where concerns can be raised and dealt with. One option is to follow the Law Commission’s recommendation to create an independent statutory commissioner looking at investigatory powers, along with public interest concerns involving issues of national security.

Each government department should appoint a senior civil servant as a whistleblowing champion. This person would be responsible for leading culture change and ensuring whistleblowing arrangements are working well in practice. 

With so many government departments and agencies taking different approaches to recording and managing whistleblowing concerns, there needs to be proper monitoring on whether the system is effective. Individual feedback should be gathered from whistleblowers who have used each system, alongside regular surveys to assess staff awareness of and trust in the whistleblowing function.

“We call on civil servants to send in evidence, whether they have experience of blowing the whistle or have been put off from coming forward”

Dedicated training is needed for all those who work in the civil service and central government. Our own research found a stark lack of awareness regarding whistleblowing and speak-up culture, with only a third (34%) of public servants saying they knew how to raise concerns.

The government’s Public Accounts Committee is currently running an inquiry seeking views on the whistleblowing landscape in the civil service. We at Protect will be submitting evidence, based on our 30 years of working directly with whistleblowers and supporting organisations to embed effective procedures. It is vital that the experiences of whistleblowers inform improvements. We call on civil servants to send in evidence, whether they have experience of blowing the whistle, have been put off from coming forward or have a view on the whistleblowing culture across government departments.

We need government to step up and ensure that it is safe for civil servants to speak out, that departments are listening to and acting upon concerns raised, and that change follows. If we do not learn, we will continue making the same mistakes. Good government relies on good whistleblowing. 

Andrew Pepper-Parsons is director of policy at Protect, overseeing its policy, research and campaigning activity


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