Posted on March 30, 2017 by Bob Shambler
Mark Felt’s exposure of the Watergate scandal brought down President Nixon; Julie Bailey’s campaign led to the investigation into the failings of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust; Sherron Watkins’ exposure of the Enron scandal led to wider questioning of US company accounting practices and contributed to new accounting and accountability laws. Whistleblowing plays a crucial role in transparency, provides a highly valuable early warning system for organisations and drives a wide range of improvements. Would you know how to whistleblow? Would you feel safe from reprisal? The NAO has put out a series of reports on whistleblowing, and I recently drew on these to share the UK’s experience of whistleblowing arrangements at a Mexican conference on international best practice.
Sherron Watkins was awarded “People of the Year” Award by Time for her exposure of Enron’s practices; but other whistleblowers have suffered anything from trauma to death threats and even being murdered. Fear of reprisals or persecution is, not surprisingly, a key barrier to whistleblowing. In the UK the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA) gives whistleblowers legal recourse if they suffer harm as a result of making a disclosure; but Mexico has no equivalent. This is why I, along with speakers from other countries and the World Bank, presented at a three-day conference held by the Mexican Ministry of Public Administration – Secretaría de la Función Pública (SFP): “Implementing International Best Practices for Whistleblower Protection in Mexico”.
Two-way sharing of good practice and lessons with other national audit offices and, in this case, overseas governments is one of the key roles of the NAO’s International Relations and Technical Cooperation team. Moreover, this specific issue, by helping to reduce corruption will also help British commercial opportunities in Mexico.
What is whistleblowing?
Whistleblowing (in the UK) is when an employee reports certain types of wrongdoing. Officially called ‘making a disclosure in the public interest’, the wrongdoing must affect others, e.g. the public. Complaints about personal grievances such as bullying, harassment and discrimination should be covered by employers’ grievance policies and aren’t covered by whistleblowing law, unless the case is in the public interest.
Issues covered by the UK law include: criminal offences (e.g. fraud); dangers to health and safety; the risk of or actual damage to the environment; miscarriages of justice; a company breaking the law; or covering up wrongdoing. It should be noted that whistleblowers do not have to comply with confidentiality clauses in any settlement agreements.
For more information, see gov.uk whistleblowing pages.
In mid-2016, Mexico approved an anti-corruption reform that required changing 14 constitutional articles, drafting two new general laws, and reforming five more. The subsequent conference on whistleblower protection contributed to these reforms, as it was intended to help develop an effective system for reporting corruption and other public interest matters.
The NAO was well-placed to share as we have published three reports on the topic since 2014.
Our first report, Government Whistleblowing Policies, examined the procedures in place for employees to raise concerns within government departments and their arms’-length bodies. We reviewed 39 whistleblowing policies across government, highlighted good practice and developed a framework of criteria enabling organisations to assess their own whistleblowing policies, which is available on the same web-page, and summarised below.
Assessment criteria for whistleblowing policies
Criteria on setting a positive environment for a whistleblowing policy:
- Commitment, clarity and tone from the top
- Offering an alternative to line management
- Reassuring potential whistleblowers
- Addressing concerns and providing feedback
Criteria on supporting whistleblowers:
- Openness, confidentiality and anonymity
- Access to independent advice
- Options for whistleblowing to external bodies (prescribed persons)
We then reported on Making a whistleblowing policy work, looking at: why whistleblowing is important (summarised below); how well systems were working, including the clarity of governance arrangements and the role of audit committees and internal audit; the availability of intelligence; the structures in place to enable whistleblowing, particularly through complex delivery chains; and whether behaviours supported and enabled whistleblowing.
Why good whistleblowing processes are important to organisations
An early warning system: Whistleblowers enable organisations to address problems before they escalate. A culture open to whistleblowing is likely to: deter wrongdoing; demonstrate the organisation’s accountability; reduce the risk of anonymous and malicious leaks; and minimise costs and compensation from accidents, investigations, litigation and regulatory inspections.
Reputation management: A robust whistleblowing process shows transparency and avoids the risk of wrongdoings being covered-up despite concerns being raised, as happens in well-publicised scandals, such as Hillsborough. Where arrangements are poor, the first an organisation may learn of a potentially serious problem is when an employee has raised the matter with a regulator, a lawyer or the media; impacting on the organisation’s reputation or funding, or resulting in a regulatory investigation.
Aids oversight of delivery chains: Complex delivery chains create greater distance between those who are accountable and those who are delivering, making reporting processes even more important for effective oversight.
Informs regulators: Whistleblowers are a vital source of information for regulators as they can provide a perspective that is not readily available in other ways.
Our third report was The role of prescribed persons. Whistleblowers will usually approach their employers to raise concerns. But if they are worried that they’ll suffer detriment from their employer or co-workers as a result, they can approach the relevant ‘prescribed person’. This is someone who’s independent of the employee’s organisation, but usually has an authoritative relationship with the organisation, such as a regulatory or legislative body. Our own Comptroller and Auditor General is a ‘prescribed person’, others include the Children’s Commissioner and the Care Quality Commission. Our report aimed to help the prescribed person community to understand best practice in:
- making it easy for the public to contact a prescribed person;
- handling concerns; and
- ensuring the system works for whistleblowers.
Our three reports were designed principally to help those with whistleblower policies and ‘prescribed persons’. But one of our key findings was the relatively low level of employee awareness – even within government departments – of how to raise a concern.
How to whistleblow in the UK
Your own organisation should have a whistleblower policy, with clarity about who and how you can raise an issue confidentially, without necessarily involving your line manager. It may include a confidential email address, a whistleblowing hotline and/or officer, a specialist – e.g. in counter fraud, and could include a role for Non-Executive Board members. Some policies encourage employees to approach their trade union representative.
Civil servants can escalate unresolved issues to the Civil Service Commission – see more about the CSC and the PIDA Act.
Anyone can seek advice from Citizens Advice.
In some sectors there are specialist helplines, e.g. the free Whistleblowing helpline for those in the NHS and social care sector.
There’s a range of Prescribed persons and bodies to whom you can raise concerns.
Sharing the UK’s experience of whistleblowing policies and practices is just one of the many ways the NAO’s has endeavoured to assist other countries and the International Relations and Technical Co-operation team always welcomes exchanges with other audit institutions.
If you have queries or views on whistleblowing or any aspect of our international work, we would love to hear your comments or invite you to contact us.
About the author: Bob Shambler has worked in NAO’s International Relations and Technical Co-operation team since his return in 2005 from a two year secondment to HM Treasury. Bob joined the NAO in 1987 from university and has worked on a range of financial and performance audit teams.
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