This comment article is written by The Bristol Blogger
A recent Guardian article written by David Owen, a whistleblower at HM Treasury who was awarded £142,000 after the government department refused to reemploy him as instructed by an employment tribunal, offered ‘five tips for whistleblowers’.
The Treasury mandarin’s advice, while useful, was also patrician and high-minded. He claimed top public-sector managers “do usually care”; expressed the belief that you should “give management an opportunity to fix things” and suggested you should be “ultra reasonable”. He was then slaughtered in the comments section by a few very well-informed individuals with knowledge of whistleblowing in the public sector.
So what happens when a junior employee blows the whistle in Bristol?
As a glorified admin assistant I blew the whistle a few years ago. Financial and cash management in the department was a shambles. The manager and finance worker were manually adjusting accounts to make cash balance and leaving no record of the fact they had done so (which is false accounting); money wasn’t being collected and the arrears ignored and hidden; mysterious financial deals were made offsite by management; fees to some individuals close to management were waived; management accounts were non-existent and nobody seemed to be overseeing anything.
I approached the service manager informally and explained my concerns. He listened. Said he would look at it. Then two days later he announced a service review, which might lead to redundancies in the department.
Three weeks later I wrote and asked the service manager what he had done about my complaint. I then received a ridiculous response written by the manager I had complained about in the first place. He blamed the financial problems on “plumbing problems” and “ongoing issues”. The service manager seemed content with this nonsense and glibly continued with his service review.
I was not happy. I formalised my concerns; said I wished to be treated as a whistleblower and listed my concerns with evidence and reference to the authority’s financial regulations. The service manager referred my complaint to the internal audit service and said there would be an “investigation” (remember that word as these people love a semantic game).
At this point I asked the service manager if he intended to postpone his service review until he had received the audit investigation report. It seemed sound business sense. Obtain the recommendations from this report and then reorganise your service. After all, you wouldn’t want to have to do two service reviews. One before the report and then another after to implement any recommendations from the report. The service manager refused. He told me, apparently without embarrassment, that his service review and the financial investigation were separate and did not affect each other.
I had been outed
When asked what would happen if the finance report recommended the department employ a trained and skilled bookeeper rather than the three generalist officers with no finance training or skills he favoured in his review, he ignored the question. He then released my name as the whistleblower to my immediate boss and the finance worker in my department by email. I had been outed.
Up until then it had been possible to maintain a relatively positive outlook about all this. It was possible to see the management’s actions as the result of a clash of their rather low intellects with their large managerial egos grappling with difficult events. No longer. Their actions were mendacious. I had been thrown to the lions. A green light had been given to the people I had blown the whistle on to bully me in the workplace. And the service manager to whom I should report such bullying had instigated it.
At this point I’d describe my situation as a mentally ‘quite tough’ place to be. A whistleblower with my job under threat and a bullying open season declared on me by my own bosses. A lot of people would have, quite sensibly, bailed out at this point. I, however, joined the fight. You stand up to bullies right? My first port of call was the internal audit service running the finance ‘investigation’. Pursuing anything further through my department seemed, at best, pointless and at worse an invitation for further attacks.
I visited the internal auditor some two months after making my complaint and just prior to the beginning of their ‘investigation’. It was polite enough, although, in retrospect, a strange meeting. There was no curiosity about what I might know about my department’s finances, for example. An odd absence for supposedly professional investigators. However, they explained one thing – a 28-day “review” was about to take place in my department – and then dropped a bombshell: there was no ‘investigation’ taking place into my complaints. It was a general ‘review’ of the department’s finances that might lead to an investigation!
How extraordinary, two months after I had formally blown the whistle, I finally was informed that no investigation was taking place despite having been told one was by my service manager! I also discussed with the internal auditors my concerns over being identified as a whistleblower and my concerns about being bullied in my workplace. They agreed to obtain information for me, at my request, about being temporarily moved from my workplace to somewhere a little safer and less stressful.
However, even this small step forward was soon quashed. I received an email the next day from the internal audit manager explaining she had spoken to HR and whistleblowing was something they “knew nothing about”. A move out of my workplace would not be happening.
Isolated and bullied
Meanwhile the final, small ray of hope – the ‘investigation’ turned ‘review’ – commenced. And how weird was this? The investigator, who I had met a few days previously, would not acknowledge me in my own office and would not even make eye contact with me. Hardly sensitive treatment of a person who had been sat in their office complaining of feeling isolated and bullied in the workplace just days before.
The investigation was equally strange. The only staff in the department interviewed were my boss and the finance worker, the individuals at the heart of the complaints. I, as the whistleblower, was never interviewed. However, anticipating that a report would be coming from internal audit in a few weeks and it would arrive before any interview for my own job as part of the service manager’s farcical service review, I stuck in there. Convinced that even a narrow, biased review was bound to reveal serious issues that would need to be urgently addressed, I was sure the service review would have to be cancelled and I would be exonerated.
By this time I’d describe my situation as a mentally ‘very tough’ place to be. That bottle of wine you buy on Friday, I was buying on a Tuesday. I was self-medicating and putting on weight.
Then another bombshell. When the 28-day review deadline passed with my complaint now over three months old (over four months if you consider I made a verbal complaint prior to formalising my concerns), I contacted the internal audit service to find out where the report was only to be given a new story. “A 28-day review does not have to take place over 28 consecutive days.” The report was not completed and nobody seemed to know when it would be. My complaint has been kicked even further out into the long grass while the service review to dispose of me continued at breakneck pace.
An interview date is then set and it’s obvious I’m going to be out on my ear – with my complaints outstanding and quite possibly never addressed – especially when I discover the boss who I’ve complained about – and been outed to – is on the interview panel. As a last throw of the dice I escalate my complaint and write to the authority’s monitoring officer and a few senior councillors more in hope than expectation. The monitoring officer eventually replies and simply quotes HR – who two months earlier “knew nothing about whistleblowing” – claiming everything was as it should be. The councillors offer a few platitudes about ensuring that I’m not removed from my job as a result of whistleblowing and then run away never to be heard from again.
Then I’m removed from my job as a result of whistleblowing. Four months after formally complaining, I’m told I’ve been unsuccessful at interview for a job in my department and I will be redeployed elsewhere. Over 90 days into the internal audit service’s ’28-day review’ I leave the department with no sign of any report. The report finally emerged a few months later. Even with the best possible spin the internal audit service could manage, it revealed that my former department’s finances were indeed a shambles while every one of my specific complaints was listed as ‘unresolved’ over six months’ later. And so they remain to this day. Any further investigation was spiked by the Service Manager and nobody – apart from myself – was made accountable for what had gone on.
I suppose, then, three questions arise. Was it worth it? No. It was a waste of time and energy. Would you do it again? Yes. Don’t let the bastards get away with it without a fight. Would you encourage other people to whistleblow? No. You’ll get shafted and nothing will change.