Whistleblowing arrangements in government require further improvement with slow and inconsistent progress being made by departments and other civil service bodies, a new National Audit Office (NAO) report says.
The NAO’s report Investigation into whistleblowing in the civil service1 examines centrally held whistleblowing data in government over a three-year period.2 Within this period, an average of 313 concerns were raised by civil servants each year, with five3 departments representing 77% of concerns, and 40% of concerns relating to fraud.
Investigations by organisations found wrongdoing in 76 cases over the three-year period (12% of completed investigations). In 49 of the cases where wrongdoing was found, departments took disciplinary action or made changes to policy and procedures. But of the remaining 27 cases, in 20 of these cases organisations reported either that it was ‘not known’ what action was taken, the action was unspecified, or that no information was held. No action was taken in a further 7 cases.4
The government has taken several steps to improve the transparency of whistleblowing in the civil service, including requiring government bodies to report on the effectiveness of whistleblowing arrangements in their annual reports, and reporting data on concerns raised to Cabinet Office.
Despite government’s action, problems with the underlying approach to whistleblowing remain. For instance, the NAO found the government’s data has several quality limitations, such as no method for capturing outcomes for concerns that were ‘ongoing’ at the point of an annual data collection. The Government People Group in the Cabinet Office collects data on whistleblowing, but it could do more to analyse information and share learnings across government.
Organisations have put in place support for whistleblowers, but there is limited information available on their experiences and how they feel supported. Almost two-thirds of the 78 people who gave reasons for raising their concerns anonymously said they did so out of ‘fear of reprisal, recrimination or victimisation.’
The NAO has established four recommendations for government to improve its arrangements for whistleblowing. These recommendations include:
- collecting better information on whistleblowing and what happens whistleblowers after they report concerns
- using every concern raised as an opportunity to learn from whistleblowers, even if no wrongdoing is found
- determining the extent of whistle blower complaints of intimidation or victimisation by building an understanding of the number and patterns of complaints, when data is available, as well as co-ordinating departmental action
- doing more to help departments learn from each other about effective approaches to whistleblowing, for example the way senior leaders can oversee whistleblowing
“Whistleblowing is a vital organisational protection. It provides a way for organisations to hear concerns about serious wrongdoing that may not otherwise be discovered, and a number of recent high-profile cases underline why it’s important that effective arrangements are in place.
"Significant challenges remain for government in learning from past cases, improving the experience of whistleblowers and empowering people to come forward with their concerns.”Gareth Davies, head of the NAO
Read the full report
Notes for editors
- We examine whistleblowing in the civil service, which includes government departments, executive agencies and other government organisations that primarily employ civil servants. Whistleblowing is where people working in or with the civil service report that wrongdoing has occurred, is occurring or is likely to occur at their organisation. This is variously known as ‘blowing the whistle’, ‘raising a concern’ or ‘speaking up’.
- We use data up to 2022 as concerns data collected by Cabinet Office for 2022-23 and Civil Service People Survey data for 2023 were not available while we were carrying out analysis for the report.
- The five departments are the Ministry of Defence, Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue & Customs, Home Office and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. This does not necessarily mean these organisations were facing the greatest risks, as it is difficult to draw conclusions from the number of concerns raised; a very low number may indicate a lack of confidence in whistleblowing arrangements or a low number of problems.
- One case of wrongdoing was recorded as unspecified “other” action.
- The methodological, practical and ethical challenges involved in identifying, contacting and seeking views from a representative group of civil service whistleblowers were prohibitive. Instead, we held three focus groups with people that have experience of engaging with civil service whistleblowers to gather insights on whistleblowers’ experience.