Audit Office publishes new guidance on whistle blowing

3 Jul 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 3 Jul 2020

Kieran Donnelly

New guidelines on how public sector bodies should deal with concerns raised by staff and the public have just been published.

The guidance from the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) follows revelations in the RHI Inquiry about the treatment of a member of the public who raised concerns about the operation of the scheme only to have her anonymity blown and her issues ignored.

The Raising Concerns guide is not just of burning interest to the public sector and general public, but also to charities and those private sector bodies that are contracted to carry out public services. The report is explicit on this: “Concerns about the delivery of such services should be directed to the public sector organisation on whose behalf the service is being provided.  Public sector organisations should bring this Guide to the attention of contracted service providers.”

So where concerns are raised about relevant charities they need to be directed to whichever public body commissioned their services.

Many will be disappointed that people who raise concerns are still not being listened to despite legislation to protect them being in place for more than two decades.

The report is called Raising Concerns because the NIAO wants to change the language. Whilst whistleblowing and raising concerns are one and the same, the term whistle blowing has acquired negative connotations. It believes that by changing the terminology it will be easier for organisations to understand that raising concerns is and should be a normal part of day-to-day business.

In launching the report the Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said: “I continue to receive correspondence from public sector employees who have tried to do the right thing by raising concerns with their employer, but have been ignored or not received a fair hearing, or who have even suffered as a result of speaking up.  This situation must change.”

He added: “Senior leaders in every public body in Northern Ireland need to take action to address the real and perceived barriers to raising concerns. They should formally review the effectiveness of their arrangements for responding to concerns against the good practice principles set out in this guide.  It is important that such reviews are more than tick-box exercises. Strong and visible leadership is key to promoting the necessary culture change.” 

Therefore having procedures and protocols in place around raising concerns is not, in itself enough. What is at the heart of the challenge is the culture of the organisation.

The report spells out what is required: “ Staff are a key resource and are often referred to as the “eyes and ears” of an organisation.  As such, they should be properly valued and listened to if they come forward, in the wider public interest, to raise issues of concern.  Raising concerns and being listened to should be part of the normal business of any healthy organisation.”

This brings us to the little understood paradox about reputational management.  Everyone wants their organisation to have a positive reputation. But the key to achieve this is not to suppress or ignore concerns whether internal or external. Rather it is to listen to them, embrace them and learn from them. Being known to be open and transparent, an organisation that responds and listens is a good thing, not a bad one. And being the opposite carries grave risks.

As the document points out: “Concerns raised provide public bodies with an important source of information that may highlight serious risks, potential fraud or corruption.  Workers are often best placed to identify deficiencies and problems before any damage is done.”

That is also why it is essential for boards and senior management teams to assure themselves that the processes and procedures in place for raising concerns are effective.

Mr Donnelly added: “The key thing is to test the culture in these areas. We often come across senior teams when concerns surface and they got an eye opener that the culture was not as they thought it was. It is up to leadership teams and boards to promote and test the culture.”

The guidance goes on to recommend that each organisation have a “Raising Concern” champion not just to help staff but for the public as well. “Public sector organisations should provide an obvious and well sign-posted route for members of the public wishing to raise a concern in the public interest.  This may take the form of, for example, a speak-up guardian or raising concerns champion who can be a source of advice and support for staff but, in addition, a key resource for connecting the organisation to service users and the wider public.”

This is a particular issue for members of the public who will often have no idea how to raise concerns they might have about delivery of public services, for example. This came out in the RHI inquiry when an anonymous whistle blower said at the hearing: ““What do people do whenever they go to a department — any department — with a concern and they feel that they’re not being listened to? Where do they go next? I don’t know where that is and I still don’t know.”

To address this the NIAO has produced a leaflet for the public explaining how to proceed which can be downloaded from its website.

Mr Donnelly says that concerns raised anonymously should be taken every bit as seriously as any other cases and should not be dismissed.

“Some of the people who come to us are fearful – these are not big in numbers, I can think of around a dozen cases where people were very reticent. Some are even afraid to meet in the office.  That is a fact of life. When I see cases like that they are telling me policies and procedures are not working in that particular public body – a sign of failure.”

There’s also a warning in the report for organisations to deal with concerns on their own merit rather than speculate that the complainant has an ulterior motive. Even if they do the concern they raise may be valid.  

It will now be down to public bodies to study and act upon the guidance and to ensure that they have the right culture in place so that concerns whether raised by staff or the general public are listened to and where necessary acted upon.

The guidance is very clear and concise and its full implementation will surely lead to improved openness and governance in the public sector. But cultural change takes time and effort. It will require strong, visible leadership from both senior management and non-executives to inculcate.

 

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