Andy Shettle, Chief Product Officer of ER Tracker, Selenity, discusses whistleblowing in healthcare and other public sector organisations

The accountability and transparency of public sector organisations, such as the NHS is an essential part of maintaining trust. However, in recent years a wider access to information, the prevalence of social media and a greater public need for transparency has meant that whistleblowing cases have become more prominent.

Whistleblowing, also known as ‘making a disclosure in the public interest’ is when an employee reports suspected wrongdoing. It’s an important part of safeguarding the effective delivery of public services and ensuring value for money. Not only does it protect and enhance the freedom of employee expression but it also contributes to a healthy working culture and the efficient running of public sector organisations.

Although employees are best placed to raise concerns, after all they will be the first people to know of any risks, staff can often fear speaking out. In some isolated instances doing so can lead to personal and professional consequences for the individuals that call out misconduct.In fact, last month the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) published a paper calling for the creation of an independent office to protect whistleblowers.

However, some sectors have adopted their own set of regulations, the NHS for instance standardises the way it supports staff through its Freedom to Speak Up policy. In fact, last week it announced a new dedicated support system for employees who had already raised concerns on unsafe practice. However, there is still some ambiguity surrounding best practice, especially for public sector employers who are often put under the spotlight. NHS managers have a key role to play when navigating serious issues such as whistleblowing cases, here are some practical steps for consideration.

Setting out a clear policy

NHS employers should have a clear and comprehensive whistleblowing policy which sets out the procedure to be followed where an employee has a reasonable concern. Organisations should also ensure their employees are made aware of the policy and are provided with the necessary training, guidance and support to be able to come forward and report apparent misconduct.

Organisations that have strong and clear policies in place not only encourage whistleblowers to come forward but also demonstrate the ability to show that they are improving and learning lessons from the issues raised. The willingness to examine areas of potential weakness and listen to staff, including those on the front line, means organisations can address issues and concerns early on. These organisations are more likely to be the ones that avoid the negative publicity that come from these policies failing.

Creating an open culture

It’s important that organisations create an open and supportive culture so that employees feel comfortable raising concerns surrounding misconduct. As mentioned previously, one of the barriers whistleblowers face is a fear of reprisal, the other is that no action will be taken if they do make the decision to ‘blow the whistle’. Therefore, it’s important for the NHS totranslate this message through managers and the leadership teams that every level of the organisation welcomes and encourages employees to make disclosures.

Tapping into technology

Traditionally, the NHS has relied on “hotlines” such as the National Whistleblowing Hotline or the NHS Whistleblowing Helping, where employees can anonymously leave details of incidents or behaviour that they felt could be classified as misconduct. Yet, developments in HR case management software can help NHS managers to keep solid records. Allowing them to keep track of behaviour and maintain a healthy work culture, while self-regulating.

It’s best practice for NHS managers to document whether the whistleblower has requested confidentiality as well as manage their expectations in terms of what action and/or feedback they can expect and set timescales for next steps and updates. Organisations should look to record the number of whistleblowing disclosures they receive and keep records of the date and feedback provided to whistleblowers. Alongside documenting decisions or actions taken following the voicing of concerns.

Having the right tools and processes in place is critical when dealing with these sensitive issues. Not only does it provide employees with the confidence to put forward concerns but it also ensures that organisations log and monitor them appropriately.

Identifying patterns of disclosure
Monitoring and tracking whistleblowing cases is only part of the process, to really get ahead organisations must examine the data – providing insights that help to proactively identify issues. For instance, if multiple whistleblowing concerns are raised against a specific department, the employee relations team will be able to see this and investigate accordingly. Taking a proactive approach not only allows the NHS to get ahead of the issue but also implement additional resources if needed. Viewing whistleblowers as an early warning system can help the NHS and other public sector organisations to address issues before they escalate.

Ultimately, there are no laws requiring public sector organisations to have whistleblowing policies in place or to log and record the number of concerns raised. However, as an employer it’s good practice to create an open, transparent and safe working environment where workers feel able to speak up. By having clear policies and procedures in place, organisations demonstrate their commitment to listening to the concerns of employees and getting ahead of issues before they arise.