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Government is asking the wrong questions when it comes to whistleblowing in the civil service

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Today the National Audit Office, the independent public spending watchdog, reports that progress to improve whistleblowing in the civil service is slow and inconsistent.  Much has already been written about how difficult it is for civil servants to raise concerns outside of their department –  shown in such scandals as Greensill, Partygate and British withdrawal from Afghanistan, but this new look at what is happening inside government is disappointing. 

The NAO report notes the importance of whistleblowing – providing a vital early warning system, stopping harms and deterring wrongdoing.  The report analyses nearly a thousand whistleblowing concerns raised over three years, from fraud to health and safety, from data breaches to the misleading of Parliament. But the report finds responses to concerns can be slow, there is a lack of serious actions, a failure to monitor incidences of victimisation, and failures to collect feedback from whistleblowers.  

The serious gaps in how data is collected centrally means that the Government according to the reportcannot be confident that the arrangements for whistleblowing are effective across all departments nor that learning from whistleblowing is happening”.   

Two particular gaps worry us at Protect.  First, only around half (52%) of civil servants think that it is “safe to challenge the way things are done”.  We want whistleblowers to come forward when they see wrongdoing inside government and feel safe when they do so.  If they don’t feel safe, they may not raise concerns at all.  It is disappointing, therefore, that there is no consistent recording of whistleblower victimsation across government, nor is feedback sought from whistleblowers who have used the process.  This would be standard practice in any other large organisation with sophisticated whistleblowing systems.

Our own research from callers to our Advice Line suggests that around half of those who work in government experience some form of retaliation.  The NAO reports that 65% of civil servants who are raising concerns anonymously are doing so because they are afraid.  Government needs to take victimisation seriously.  We’ve published evidence about what works to prevent victimisation and we know that creating safe workplaces is not just about stating a “zero tolerance” approach, but acting on it when it occurs.  The NAO could find no evidence that any action on victimisation is happening across departments. 

Second, despite some improvements in data collection and analysis, the Cabinet Office is not asking the right questions of departments: are your whistleblowing arrangements working and what can we learn from the concerns that are raised?  Departments are asked to carry out regular health checks, but the Cabinet Office is not assuring the adequacy of arrangements and doesn’t analyse the data to enable cross-governmental learning.

Every time a whistleblower raises a concern that’s a gift of information to an employer.  The NAO report rightly says that reports, whether or not wrongdoing is uncovered, should be seen as opportunities to improve.  Whistleblowers’ twin fears – that raising concerns will lead to harm to themselves, or that raising concerns will be futile – are not adequately addressed in central government.  With over 300 whistleblowing concerns raised every year by civil servants, there’s a huge learning opportunity. 

Sadly this report will do little to assure civil servants – or indeed the wider public – that it is safe to speak up, that departments are listening and acting on concerns raised, and that change follows.  If we don’t learn, we’ll carry on making the same mistakes: good government relies on good whistleblowing. 

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