04 Apr 2013

Police and Whistleblowers – Welcome to Great Britain in 2013

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A doctor and a police officer are both worried about management practices in their organizations. The doctor thinks that chasing targets is affecting clinical decision making and affecting patient safety. The police officer thinks that chasing targets is causing dysfunctional organizational behavior and affecting public safety. Both try to raise their concerns and both are told to be quiet.

Both feel so strongly about the situations that they take to social media and “blow the whistle.” One is protected the other is disciplined and threatened with prosecution. This is not from the pages of Orwell or Kafka – this bizarre dichotomy exists.

Welcome to the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 2013.

Strong action against whistle-blowers is not the sole preserve of the United Kingdom. In the United States of America the Espionage Act (which dates back to World War 1) has been used six times under the Obama Administration alone since 2009 in order to prosecute those who have spoken out publicly. However, in the UK there is something of a “perfect storm” brewing and it is leading to a very confusing state of affairs.

The Francis Inquiry

Within the last few months the management of a hospital in Staffordshire, England has been subject to an inquiry into activity there between 2005 and 2009. It is believed that during this time as many as 1200 patients may have died unnecessarily because of perverse management practices which put hitting government imposed targets above all else including clinical decisions and patient care.

This inquiry was led by a judge, Robert Francis and his final report amounts to hundreds of pages of horrifying and heartbreaking stories. It seems that throughout all of this – even though people could see what was going wrong – very few people were prepared to speak out and “whistle-blow.” The ones who tried were ignored or silenced.

The main reason appears to have been a climate of fear and bullying within the organization. This was compounded by the management’s complete state of denial about problems existing at all.

Suffice to say, there is public outrage. Consequently, the government minister in charge of the National Health Service (NHS) has made it very clear that “gagging clauses” should be banned, whistle-blowers should be protected and he will be appointing a Chief Inspector of the NHS who will be “whistle-blower-in-chief.”

The Leveson Inquiry

Running parallel to this was a completely separate and unconnected public inquiry led by another judge, Lord Justice Brian Leveson. This was looking at press ethics following revelations that tabloid newspapers were illegally hacking the phones of celebrities in order to get stories. It also examined the relationship between the press and the police. Neither came out of this very well and it seems that everyone was a little too close to one another for comfort. There are a number of examples of money changing hands for stories and “off the record” briefings were common place.

Consequently, the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry is that police officers shouldn’t be talking to the press at all. Off the record briefings should stop and whistleblowing is to be discouraged and dealt with severely. This had led to an even more strained relationship between the police and the press as as an ongoing investigation (Operation Elveden) has seen the arrests of journalists, editors and police officers on an almost weekly basis.

The Reform Agenda

To add further spice to the situation the UK government has embarked on the most intensive program of reform of the police and the criminal justice system in over 200 years. These reforms have not been universally welcomed. Police officers are, rightly, not allowed to be “politically active” but in the absence of any other legitimate channels many officers have turned to social media as a way of expressing their concerns about the impact of budget cuts and loss of pay, pension and working conditions.

The agency which inspects the police in the UK (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary) recently conducted an audit on official police social media accounts which led to some being switched off and officers disciplined. Anonymous accounts present an even bigger headache as some have chosen this means to say exactly what they think – no holds barred. Stern guidance has been issued about its use.

The Probation Service is, too all intents and purposes, about to be privatized and this is a matter of concern for many practitioners within that field of work. Again they have used social media to sound warnings and criticize the proposals.

The minister in charge of justice has effectively announced a “gagging order” on probation staff forbidding them from using social media (or any other form of media) to criticize the policy or the government agenda. The consequences for transgressors are dire.

The Dichotomy

  • Two public inquiries
  • Two judges
  • Two very different outcomes
  • Two different Ministers of State
  • Two contradictory “solutions”

The UK government is implementing them both simultaneously without so much as blinking at the obvious discrepancies and conflicts. You have a situation where whistleblowing in the health service is encouraged whilst whistleblowing in the criminal justice sector is not.

The Phantom Menace

There is now something of a sense of nervousness amongst public sector organizations to allow their employees to use social media either in the legitimate course of their business or to discuss “work” whilst off duty. There seems to be an underlying suspicion that any employee could go “rogue” at any time and so, in some cases, the message is DON’T USE SOCIAL MEDIA – OR ELSE!

Let me be clear on a few points:

  •  Public officials should not be selling stories to the press. This is an abuse of position and trust and should be dealt with firmly.
  • I am not advocating that the use of social media should be a “free-for-all.” Anyone identifying themselves (officially or anonymously) as a public official has to accept a heavy dose of “user responsibility”.
  • There is a world of difference between a disgruntled employee who uses social media to vent grievances inappropriately and someone who is genuinely trying to blow the whistle on sinister, criminal or inappropriate practices. My concern is that draconian, vague and even archaic legislation is being used as a sledgehammer to crack a nut or as a very heavy way of silencing legitimate concern.

If staff are not echoing the corporate messages and visions in their use of social media then something has been lost in translation internally. The challenge is not simply to rebuke and punish the staff but to find out why the difference exists. Is this just an unhappy team member who needs some help and support or is strategy so divorced from reality that you actually have a major problem on your hands?

If staff feel strongly enough to “go public” on mass then there is either something fundamentally wrong with what an organization is doing or there is something badly wrong with policy implementation and internal communication.

The Wrong Question

The question should not be “how do we stop our staff whistleblowing on social media?” The question should be “WHY are our staff whistleblowing on social media?”

In the UK I believe that the answer is down to a sense of exclusion and lack of consultation. The current UK government has a very clear reform agenda but there is a strong sense that it is doing this UNTO rather than doing this WITH the professionals who are most likely to be affected. The Government argues that it has the mandate to implement reform and that it is not for the staff to stand in the way of democratically elected politicians and their plans.

This leads us straight back to the NHS in Mid- Staffordshire and the problem with silencing and ignoring staff. The cause of the entire problem there was local management implementing the targets and policies of a democratically elected government. Had it been allowed to continue then even more people might have died.

There has to be a legitimate means by which professionals can express their concerns about policy changes or management practices. If there isn’t one – staff will find their own. In the 21st century the options are almost limitless and mostly available on any smartphone.

If concerns are raised:

•           discuss them (hear as well as listen)

•           consider them

•           reflect upon them

•           where possible, act upon them or explain why you are not so doing

•           try to allay them.

Take your staff with you as you implement change. The voices of the professionals need to be heard and their concerns addressed. This should be done through dialogue and the showing of mutual respect.

The Wrong Answer

More generally, the response by an organization to its staff using social media says more about its management culture than it does about the employees who use it. Not allowing your staff to use social media suggests that you either do not trust them or that you want to maintain control from the center. Neither of these positions is healthy especially as it is being rapidly proven that social media is a phenomenal community engagement tool and another means of public contact.

Publicly announcing that you are gagging staff just suggests you have something to hide. There is no room in a democratic society for gagging orders. You don’t win hearts and minds by crushing dissent or disagreement. In the civilized world you do not “buy silence” by beating people into submission and threatening them with consequences if they voice concerns.

This approach increases suspicion, increases the climate of fear, discourages honesty and means that when things do need to be said – they are not. We know that in the case of Mid-Staffordshire NHS this approach potentially cost the lives of 1200 people when really it should have cost the managerial jobs of a few.

They say that “silence is golden” – it isn’t. Dialogue is golden – there are times when silence and particularly enforced silence can be deadly.

Editor’s Note: Special Guest of The Badge Guys

Nathan Constable is a police officer from the United Kingdom. He has worked in law enforcement for almost twenty years and currently holds the rank of Inspector (roughly equivalent to Lieutenant) in an English police force.  Nathan Constable is a pseudonym.

For reasons which are partly explained in his article the police use of social media in the UK is not nationally sanctioned. Each police force has its own rules. Nathan doesn’t want to be anonymous and is keen to see this situation change. He is trying to influence the debate on Twitter @NathanConstable.

Nathan has a love of all things American and sometimes thinks he was born in the wrong country. He is an avid reader of books relating to the American Civil War and has a great love of NFL (he supports the Green Bay Packers.)

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