Thinking of whistleblowing? Here’s what to expect

Jim Wild provides a guide based on 41 years of experience in child protection and three attempts to blow the whistle

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Photo: REX/Antti Aimo-Koivisto

What do you do when you think there may be possible abuse or very bad practice happening in the service you work in?

Do you ignore it? Do you ask questions or raise concerns? Who do you raise those questions or concerns with? Does the organisational culture you are in allow legitimate challenge of those in charge of services? What will happen to you if you break the silence?

It is easy to casually think you would ‘do the right thing’ if you knew something illegal or dangerous was going on. However, the reality shown to us over years of social care whistleblowing shows that in actual fact, doing the right thing is likely to cause you huge distress.

For over 30 years, there has been a succession of reports and inquiries and recommendations to make whistleblowing easier but which have been buried and not acted upon – from Alison Taylor’s whistleblowing in North Wales, The Utting Report, Lost in Care and Quality Protects.

Yet despite all these reports and inquiries, still today there are major concerns about historical abuse emerging alongside indications of cover-ups or desperately poor practice around the UK.

Time and again cases appear in the media that show services and organisations are uncomfortable with legitimate challenge and are unwilling to listen to concerns about appalling behaviour or terrible practice. But when organisations start to cover things up without any objective scrutiny it will lead to a culture where perpetrators feel they not only can get away with it once…but again…and again…and again.

There are few roadmaps to follow, there is very little courage from the hierarchies in organisations and much bad practice goes unchecked. Yet for that tiny population of us who are willing to do something, I would like to pass on some advice that I have learned the hard way – from 41 years experience in child protection and three attempts to “whistleblow”.

I found the backlash frightening and the below are meant to be realistic and pragmatic suggestions for people who know of bad practice, networks of abuse or have information that is potentially terrifying or revelatory.

Top tips

  1. Regardless of ‘evidence’  or ‘concerns’ do not ever be expected to be thanked for what you are doing. Whilst you may feel what you have to say is important and it may have taken you a great deal of time to get to the point of disclosure, never expect any gratitude or support.
  2. Expect to be lied to, to be discredited and ‘marked’ as a troublemaker. You cannot accuse people of malpractice and not expect them to pull together – against you. Be prepared to answer questions about your own practice or motives. Be prepared for efforts to discredit you.
  3. Does the organisation you work in have an ‘inward’ or ‘outward’ looking culture?. If it is inward or parochial, it is likely that you cannot consider any further career plans in that organisation or anywhere that organisation has influence. If it has a learning culture embeded throughout, you may be lucky.
  4. Don’t expect support from peers. This evaporates and disappears when the going gets very rough as many colleagues put their careers or jobs before ‘doing the right thing’. Ask yourself where will your support come from? How certain are you of that support?
  5. Organisations can spend years avoiding questions and challenges. I have spent 14 years challenging one children’s services department and they still have not answered any of my key questions.
  6. Any support you do have is likely to be short-lived. Even your spouse, close friends and wider family will, in reality, hope that you give up or become fed-up with your constant focus on the issues.
  7. Expect a downward trajectory in your psychological wellbeing. There are times you will wonder if the idea of humanity in the caring profession exists at all. Prepare for it and have a strategy in place to overcome it: seek out people who are ethical in their daily lives, find support and validation – but try not to become obsessive about your concerns in their company.
  8. Read about power and what it means to challenge power. Read about outsiders – because that is what you are now. I would recommend Foucault or Albert Camus as a good place to start.
  9. Think critically and use it as your comfort blanket. Stephen Brookfield’s teachings were an inspiration to me. It is imperative that you read articles and explore critical thinking on a daily basis. Hold on to those ideas, however subverted you feel.
  10. Expect cynical tactics. Organisations will go through a ‘complaints procedures’ but always seem to reach a default ‘not upheld’ conclusion. Expect key information, files or ‘confidential’ documents to go missing.
  11. Don’t be surprised at covert or overt threats – solicitors and legal departments rule these agendas.
  12. Contact Public Concern at Work for advice. They have legal people who give free advice.
  13. If all else fails, go to the local government ombusman; they are said to be impartial.
  14. Consider going to your MP.
  15. By this time you will be close to retirement age.

The above has probably put most people off. But I would implore you to be brave. While we have hierarchies we will always have power and when bad decisions are made then some of those with power will have vested interests in influencing the outcomes. It is only individual courage that can challenge it.

Personally I think social work as a profession should make every attempt to move away from hierarchies. I am heartened by the move towards the “Reclaiming Social Work” model for example (pioneered in Hackney) where work is in clusters and power dynamics are not as pronounced. My hope is that this model will also mean that challenging bad practice will be easier and incorporated into the learning of any helping service or organisation – the way it should be.

Jim Wild is a trainer and founder of The Centre for Active and Ethical Learning in Child Protection

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One Response to Thinking of whistleblowing? Here’s what to expect

  1. Lynn Baxter December 10, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    Jim Wild’s article on whistleblowing was so helpful to read during my own recent experiences of trying to complain about poor practice by an Ofsted Inspector. I feel like I have passed through his 10 steps, practically in order during this long tedious and often painful process. I was semi retired before I started the complaint which gave me more time than most workers have to respond to very strict time scales laid down by Ofsted ( but not adhered to by them ) but also led me to feeling more isolated and vulnerable. I have found that volunteering your independent expertise and time to a social care agency or charity in retirement can be dangerous rather than positive for your mental health. The untruths , manipulative tactics used to malign or trip you up; answering questions you haven’t asked but ignoring requests for information you are entitled to etc have all been there as Jim describes. At one time no one knew where to contact the inspector about whom I had complained and when absent from the office ‘ Ofsted does not expect inspectors to read their emails.’
    Wonderful illogical sentences like although I have checked ‘ the regulations and national standards’ and you are right that they do not stipulate that such action is necessary, I think it’s a good idea, so your complaint is not proven. I have felt at times like I’m in a scene from One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest.

    I was amazed that the complaints procedures for the organisation that monitors the standards of Education and many Childrens Services has no independent element in the three levels of complaint and inspectors investigate inspectors. Stage 3 where, I’m at now is just an internal review of the original investigation of my complaint , so I won’t hold my breath for that. 30th December I’ll receive the Outcome Letter from Ofsted. I don’t think they will wish me Happy New Year, do you ?