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How technology can help whistleblowing in the public sector?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Scanrail1)

In order to maintain trust, public sector organisations must be transparent and responsible for their actions. With the rise of social media and increased public need for openness, there has been an increase in the amount of whistleblowing cases taking place across the sector.

So, what exactly is whistleblowing? Previously referred to as ‘making a disclosure in the public interest’ is when a member of staff reports suspected wrongdoing within an organisation. This is an important part of safeguarding the effective delivery of public services and ensuring value for money. This ultimately protects and enhances the freedom of employee expression and also encourages a healthy working culture and the productive running of a public sector organisation.

While employees are in the best position to raise concerns, as they are often the first to know of any risks, fear can be a big driver in preventing staff from speaking out. In some isolated instances doing so can lead to personal and professional consequences for the individuals that call out misconduct. In fact, recently the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) published a paper calling for the creation of an independent office to protect whistleblowers.

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.

A clear policy for all

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.

Making the most of available technology

Traditionally, the public sector 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 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 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.

Automating for accuracy

Utilising cloud-based tools can help to reduce administrative processes as well as providing  managers with the data needed to make informed decisions. On top of that, the data generated by the system can help HR teams in across the public sector to identify common features within cases and when to intervene to reduce further whistleblowing cases. Analysing data in this way also levels the playing field for employees, by ensuring that everyone follows the same stages, steps and procedures, and are treated equally.

Automated tools also help HR teams in the public sector by improving accuracy and reducing the potential for human error, by ensuring that information is automatically fed into the appropriate HR or payroll system. This is not just about reducing the administration involved in data entry, these solutions also provide a vital audit trail to help resolve queries on either side.

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 HR departments and employee relations teams 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.

Andy Shettle, Product Director of ER Tracker, Selenity (opens in new tab)

Andy Shettle is the Product Director of ER Tracker by Selenity. His experience includes implementation of HR and Payroll systems, human capital analytics and designing in house HR solutions.