Undiscussables Opinio Piece

The rhetoric around how to support whistleblowers in the public sector is evidence of how to answer a question without placing responsibility where it truly lies.

According to a Guardian report today:

Whistleblowers who risk their careers to uncover wrongdoing within public services are being victimised by managers who nearly always escape sanction, a public accounts committee report will say on Friday.

There are a number of assumptions in that one statement that illustrate how conventional approaches to whistleblowing miss the point, and rarely address what this behaviour is actually telling us.

  1. “Risking careers” – the risk lies not just in losing your current job, it lies also in other employers not being willing to take you on. That indicates this is a societal issue, and about wider patterns of human relating, not something local to one organisation
  2. “Victimised by managers” – managers are often whistleblowers (have a look at the Roffey Park research on this, a summary of the key elements of which are in an earlier post). It also propagates the myth that this is about one group within organisations who ‘do something’ to another group.
  3. “Nearly always escape sanction” – sanction is a function of policies that relate to what is and is not acceptable and/or legal. It is about how people are held to account – or not. And where there is a culture of not holding others to account, that is typically a reflection of what leadership embody as a behaviour. So the leadership of public sector organisations are involved in this, and that means Government.

MPs found there was a “startling disconnect” between Whitehall’s generally good whistleblowing policies and the way they operated in practice. It said that officials who did try to raise concerns often had to show “remarkable courage” in coming forward, and warned that the failure to provide effective protection could deter others from doing the same.

So it is not about policies. You can have as many policies as you like, and they are meaningless unless the conversation is brutally honest on an ongoing basis and the humility to accept personal responsibility for our own difficulty when we are challenged by those who name things that we do not want to see or hear.

On a programme I went on recently, John Whittington said something that applies here:

A dysfunction in one part of a system is normally a perfectly functional expression of a dysfunction elsewhere in the system.

The system in this context is not just the organisation that the whistleblower works in: it includes us. I have written before on this site that our relationship with undiscussables in organisations is a reflection of our personal and collective attitudes to what we are and are not willing to say.

What I am waiting for is the moment someone on a body like the Public Accounts Committee says something like “I wonder what this says about us?…” Otherwise, this will always be another report about how ‘The Management’ or ‘The Leadership’ in one organisation did wrong, rather than acceptance that this is co-created by all the players, inside and outside the organisational context.