Sue Gray, in her much-anticipated report into parties at 10 Downing Street while the UK was in lockdown, gave this worrying conclusion on the whistleblowing culture her team found:
“Some staff wanted to raise concerns about behaviours they witnessed at work but at times felt unable to do so. No member of staff should feel unable to report or challenge poor conduct where they witness it. There should be easier ways for staff to raise such concerns informally, outside of the line management chain”
The alarming thing is that this conclusion sounds familiar: Nigel Boardman concluded that the Greensill lobbying scandal ‘might have been mitigated if there had been a robust and trusted whistleblowing process’ in his report in July 2021.
Two official reports now find that concerned Civil Servants felt unable to raise concerns and that the system itself was not trusted to deal with concerns in an appropriate way. Protect’s own research may hint at a problem with the whistleblowing or speak-up culture in the civil service, where only 34% of public servants know how to raise whistleblowing concerns about wrongdoing, malpractice or risk that they witness in their workplace.
Reforms to support civil servants
In response to the report from Sue Gray, the Prime Minister in his statement today committed to reviewing the Civil Service Code and Special Adviser Codes of Conduct to take account of the recommendations and ensure that the codes are properly enforced.
Our view is that whistleblowing should be at the heart of these reviews. Civil servants have few options to escalate their concerns, and nowhere outside of the civil service itself. Without independent routes, civil servants fear retaliation and fear that nothing will be done if they raise concerns about wrongdoing, risk or malpractice in central government.
The Prime Minister says he will take action immediately to address Sue Gray’s findings. Protect’s view is that an overhaul of whistleblowing needs to be implemented as a priority, including the establishment of new external options for civil servants to raise concerns.
Reforms should include:
- A widening of the scope of what may count as whistleblowing, including improper behaviour and misuse or abuse of authority.
- Whistleblowers should have the option to raise a concern with someone outside the Civil Service and the Civil Service Commission.
- Each department should appoint a Senior Civil Servant as the whistleblowing champion for the department.
- The staff survey should test staff awareness of and trust in the whistleblowing function. At least once a year the whistleblowing champion should report to the departmental board on the success of embedding a speaking up culture and use of the whistleblowing function by the department.
- There should be additional training provided to all those who work in the civil service and central government, and a clear and consistent message from the top that it is a duty to speak up about wrongdoing and anyone doing so will be protected from any retribution.
To help create routes outside the civil service for staff to raise concerns, the Prime Minister’s Ethics Advisor, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the Civil Service Commissioner all need to be given the status of regulators under the whistleblowing protection in the UK the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA). All these bodies need the resources, and the authority to respond robustly and effectively when concerns are raised regarding ethical issues.
Many of these recommendations were identified by Boardman in the Greensill review.
Reforms that make Ministers more accountable
As well as putting whistleblowing at the centre of any review of the Civil Service and Special Advisors Codes we believe similar reform is needed from the Ministerial Code. It should be a breach of the Ministerial Code to victimise a whistleblower, setting a zero-tolerance from Ministers that should be replicated across central Government. This new standard should include a failure by a Minister to properly investigate and deal with reports of victimisation from staff within the Department. It should also be a breach of the Ministerial Code if the concerns raised (e.g. allegations that civil servants or Ministers are failing to deal with a bullying culture in the Department) are ignored or fail to be investigated.
The Sue Gray update, and the Boardman review before it, paint an alarming picture of dysfunctional whistleblowing or speak up cultures, where Civil Servants either felt unable to raise concerns or didn’t trust the system. We trust the Prime Minister’s promised changes to the running of Downing Street and Cabinet Office will include a review of the whistleblowing in both institutions.