It is greatly to be welcomed that the efforts and achievements of whistleblowers are recognised in print and so, just be virtue of its existence, this book serves an important purpose. It begins with a dedication to whistleblowers, and from this point we should have no illusions about whose side the author is on. The book’s first chapter opens up the central concern when trying to understand the challenge of speaking out against bad or even malevolent practice in one’s own workplace. Why are whistleblowers feted as heroic figures, in principle, and in the rhetoric of politicians, and then treated so badly once they do express their concerns? In the subsequent chapters, the book goes on to explore the nature of whistleblowing, how it is understood and how it is ‘heard’, in order to try and address this central issue, effectively of ‘shooting the messenger’. By its nature, of course, to blow the whistle means drawing attention to some form of practice or an organisational shortcoming which will be problematic for those identified as responsible. And so, for those making this kind of disclosure, this means going out on a limb almost by definition, whatever protective codes of practice may apply. It may well involve putting oneself at odds with colleagues, friends, managers and indeed entire organisations or sectors, so necessarily involves high personal risks, even before we take into account the rather sorry record of mistreatment to which whistleblowers in health and social care have been subject in the past. And yet, as the author observes, there is nothing remarkable about people who raise concerns about malpractice in the workplace; they appear simply to be guided by a sense of moral duty and concern to safeguard others. Having taken the step of drawing attention to wrongdoing, though, as the following chapters set out, the consequences we can expect are all geared towards denial and, indeed, discrediting the whistleblower. Here, we see in operation defensive organisational cultures of solidarity and denial, strategies to discredit the whistleblower, obfuscation and distraction or incentives to withdraw complaints. All of these are supported by past experience and Angie Ash does draw on some of the higher-profile examples with which readers may be familiar, such as the pattern of denial and discrediting of those who raised concerns over organised child abuse in Rotherham or the treatment of health service staff who raised concerns about poor practice in Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust. As these and many other similar examples demonstrate, there is something of a pattern here. As the author shows, and as consistently reported in sources such as Private Eye, to blow the whistle is almost certainly to set off a chain of uncomfortable, lonely and possibly career-threatening events, with only limited prospects of achieving the desired change at the end of the process. Against this rather bleak backdrop, the author poses the question of whether it is possible to establish an agreed and robust basis for supporting whistleblowers to take action without fear of retribution. She calls for a series of reforms and outlines a desired set of organisational and leadership qualities which might support a more positive environment for calling perpetrators of bad practice to account. And yet, here again, I fear, we encounter another awkward paradox. In all likelihood, those organisations and settings which adopt and adhere to these principles are probably those where there is the least need for whistleblowers to take action, because a spirit of openness and mutual respect probably guards quite effectively against malpractice and oppressive behaviour. Perhaps we need to focus rather more on why there is a need for individuals to speak up and expose individual and organisational failings in the first place. This, in turn, shifts the focus onto the structural conditions which set the terms for the unequal distribution of power and resources, and creates a vested interest in maintaining these by whatever means are available. In this context, systematic misuse of the machinery of control in a climate of secrecy and deception is, depressingly, only to be expected. Perhaps this book could have extended its analysis in this direction, and provided a more detailed account of the systemic forces and networks of power which effectively predetermine the organisational culture within which hostility to whistleblowers flourishes. Instead, the author concludes with a rather more aspirational blueprint for good practice, organisational arrangements and leadership behaviours to enable and support whistleblowing. This is certainly persuasive, but perhaps underplays the extent of the task ahead in terms of achieving the structural change and transforming the moral basis of organisational behaviour, in order to meet our positive ethical aspirations. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
The British Journal of Social Work – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 2, 2017
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