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Improving whistleblowing in the civil service 

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With more than half a million staff* working in the civil service, making up a significant proportion of the working population, its vital to public accountability that Government departments are getting whistleblowing right – especially as they’re funded through the public purse.

A recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) on whistleblowing in the civil service presented a series of disappointing observations alongside bold recommendations to address gaps in the system. To follow up on the report’s findings officials from the Cabinet Office, HMRC and DWP were called in by the Public Accounts Committee for a short evidence session. While the questions only focused on “internal” whistleblowing, ignoring the challenges of taking concerns outside the department, there were some key actions for the future.

First, no one is gathering data about the impact on whistleblowers when speaking up. It was good to see officials accepted that this was a gap, particularly in the context of staff surveys that suggest around half of civil servants don’t feel safe to raise concerns. But without information on whether whistleblowers are harmed by the process, then it is difficult to be confident the processes are working:  fear can be a real barrier to coming forward. The NAO reported that 65% of anonymous whistleblowers withheld their details for “fear of reprisal”. Officials plan to add questions on detriment to the next round of data collection.  This is welcome and may lead to a greater focus on preventing harm.

No one knows how whistleblowers experience the current system. Another blindspot for the civil service as there are no “exit interviews” with whistleblowers after an investigation. In the Committee’s session officials appeared nervous about introducing anything that they thought “might create additional barriers”. While subjecting a traumatised whistleblower to an in-depth interview about their “experiences” might not be advisable, gathering systematic feedback from the users of any system seems like a no-brainer. Whistleblowers are likely to have recommendations for improvements, and two-way feedback at the end of any investigation would be good practice.

Inconsistencies in data gathering need addressing. A self-assessment “health check” is not being used consistently by departments, which is hampering the Cabinet Office’s oversight of whistleblowing. There is some understanding of volumes of concerns raised across Departments, but little consistency in recording how long cases are taking to investigate, or what is happening in arms-length bodies. Combined with a lack of understanding about detriment, it was disappointing the officials had no answer to what was being learnt about the 40% of whistleblowing cases across the civil service that related to fraud.

The take-away from this session with senior civil servants is that while some speaking up is clearly happening (more than 300 cases per year) there’s a long to-do list to work on to bring things up to a satisfactory standard. The response from officials is that there is a willingness to do more – particularly on improving what gets measured – but it’s difficult to say, with confidence, that civil servants can trust that the whistleblowing processes are really working consistently across government.

* full-time equivalent (FTE) roles

Elizabeth Gardiner, Protect Chief Executive
Elizabeth Gardiner, Protect Chief Executive

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