Encouraging first steps but still much to be done for civil service whistleblowing

21st November 2016

As one of the nation’s largest employers that is also accountable to the public, the civil service should be leading by example in the way it promotes and responds to whistleblowing.

From paying benefits to issuing driving licenses, running prisons to collecting taxes, the work the Civil Service undertakes has such a tangible impact on so many facets of our lives that any concerns with its operation are necessarily issues of public interest. Where civil servants report problems they should be dealt with quickly and effectively to minimise the impact on the wider public. Further, as one of the nation’s largest employers that is also accountable to the public, the Civil Service should be leading the way in setting an example for how organisations promote and respond to whistleblowing.

Last month the Public Accounts Committee expressed disappointment that the Cabinet Office, the department that manages the Civil Service, had shown a lack of urgency in its attempts to improve its handling of whistleblowing. This month the government sought to allay their fears and published its response.

The government has committed to a process of ‘continuous improvement around whistleblowing’ whereby each department will regularly report on whistleblowing complaints and publish case studies to encourage staff to raise their concerns. We welcome this approach. Efforts to improve how organisations deal with whistleblowing complaints, as well as changing perceptions on how whistleblowers are treated, require ongoing commitments as meaningful change cannot be brought about overnight.

Collecting and publishing whistleblowing data is not only of use to management but also to staff who may have negative perceptions of whistleblowing. Regular reporting of data from each department should help to normalise the action of whistleblowing. As workers begin to see whistleblowing as a common practice, and that their employers are actively promoting it as such, anxieties surrounding speaking out are likely to subside. Changes to culture and perception require a gradual evolution in attitudes brought about by consistent reinforcement that whistleblowing is welcomed and those who speak out will be protected.
This month marked the first time that Civil Service whistleblowing data has been published and the Government has admitted there was a wide variation in what data has been reported. As these reports become more standardised there will be opportunities to analyse the data and identify trends that are indicative of systemic problems within whistleblowing processes. Such trends will of course take some time to become apparent.

That said, the Government reported that the majority of whistleblowing complaints were made anonymously. The prevalence of anonymous reporting is indicative of a perception among workers that those who report concerns are at risk of reprisal, a perception that is by no means restricted to the civil service. It is easy to understand why such a perception can exist. There are sadly many cases where whistleblowers face awful consequences after speaking out and it is only natural that witnesses to these instances feel a sense of trepidation when considering blowing the whistle. The only way to tackle these perceptions is by repetitive reassurance that whistleblowers will be supported in having their concerns addressed and will not face repercussions for challenging wrongdoing. One instance where a whistleblower is badly treated can undermine all the efforts made beforehand and it is thus crucial that there is zero tolerance to victimisation and that where it occurs those responsible are disciplined.

Reporting anonymously also presents challenges for those who are receiving the information. It can make it harder for effective investigations to take place as those tasked with looking into the problem are unable to return to the whistleblower for more information and there will be no opportunity for feedback. Crucially if the organisation does not know who the individual is they cannot protect them or demonstrate that they treat those who raise concerns well.

The Government has highlighted the critical rule that departmental boards will play in scrutinising data collected on whistleblowing cases and has revised the Audit and Risk Assurance Committee handbook so that a greater emphasis is placed on whistleblowing as a means to challenge malpractice. The PCaW Whistleblowing Code of Practice, a Code for internal whistleblowing arrangements (that has been endorsed by the Financial Conduct Authority for the finance sector and 46 other private, voluntary and public sector employers), lays out some key principles for auditing and reviewing such data. A key principle is to bring context to examine a number of sources of information to create a clearer picture of how the arrangements work in practice:

i. a record of the number and types of concerns raised and the outcomes of investigations;
ii. feedback from individuals who have used the arrangements;
iii. any complaints of victimisation;
iv. any complaints of failures to maintain confidentiality;
v. a review of other existing reporting mechanisms, such as fraud, incident reporting or health and safety reports;
vi. a review of other adverse incidents that could have been identified by staff (e.g. consumer complaints, publicity or wrongdoing identified by third parties);
vii. a review of any relevant litigation; and
viii. a review of staff awareness, trust and confidence in the arrangements.

As ever, whilst changes to policies are helpful it is the implementation and adherence to those policies that will yield the desired change. The Cabinet Office is in a key position to highlight the Whistleblowing Code of Practice as an important document for Government Departments and their executive agencies to follow.