By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 17 July 2018
The National Guardian agreed hesitantly in February 2017 to publish newsletters for trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardians which her office had begun to send out.
As is often the case when one private means of communication is forced into the open, another covert channel is quietly opened.
A few months later, weekly ‘bulletins’ for trust Freedom To Speak Guardians were implemented alongside the newsletters. These bulletins only came to light recently after FOI disclosures by trusts.
A full set of bulletins was obtained and a few ‘highlights’ from these follow.
Pick ‘n Mix reasons for delayed disclosure
The National Guardian’s Office (NGO) was asked to disclose the full series of bulletins, but dragged its feet, breaching statutory FOI deadlines by over a month.
Initially, the NGO claimed that the FOI would be delayed because it was seeking permission from third parties to disclose data.
|From: “Pook, Simon” <************************************ >
Subject: Your Freedom of Information request regarding NGO bulletins
Date: 13 June 2018 at 15:38:22 BST
To: Ian Alexander <***************************** >
Dear Mr. Alexander,
I am writing in response to your email of 15th May 2018 requesting disclosure of all copies of bulletins issued by the National Guardian’s Office.
We have been processing this request under the Freedom of Information Act and had intended to ensure that we replied to you by the 20 working day statutory deadline, which is today.
However, I must extend my apologies to you and say that there will be a short delay in sending you this information. This is because we are completing consultation with all those who have contributed information to the bulletins as part of ensuring we can provide you with as much information as possible.
Please be advised that we will respond to your request as soon as we can.
When it eventually responded, the NGO claimed that the delay was due to initial failure to recognise the request as an FOI:
A total of 44 bulletins from the last year were disclosed.
Secret Hotline and Hot Potatoes
The disclosed bulletins revealed that the NGO had set up a separate VIP hotline for trust Speak Up Guardians, because they had complained that it was too difficult to get through to the NGO on the ordinary telephone number.
Yet the latter, steam-powered access point was considered good enough for whistleblowers.
So what sort of a service thinks it’s acceptable to palm its core users off with second best?
Laughably, the NGO redacted the VIP hotline number from all the disclosed bulletins, giving the justification of exemption under Section 31(g) FOIA – prejudice to law enforcement:
“We have a publicly available number to contact the NGO but we consider that it is important that Guardians have a quick and direct line to the NGO so that they can obtain urgent advice and support when required. We consider that public disclosure of this number would defeat this purpose and would therefore prejudice the NGO’s ability to support Guardians in their role to support NHS employees in raising concerns relating to the safety and welfare of patients, and protecting the welfare of the people who raise those concerns. These redactions are made under section 31(g) of FOIA.”
This argument was curious given that the NGO has zilch enforcement powers. It was void in any case as the hotline number had already been disclosed by trusts.
What the dysfunctional NGO should do of course is ensure that it responds just as promptly to whistleblowers as it does to Speak Up Guardians.
Also implying that whistleblowers may be a distraction or somehow a secondary consideration, Bulletin 5, 5 August 2017 featured a remarkable blog by a Speak Up Guardian (name redacted). This commented that it was all very well to support whistleblowers, but it was better to ‘win big’ by talking to lots of managers.
Is that really the sort of tone that the NGO should be encouraging? But it is certainly consistent with the NGO’s repeated attempts to move away from its original, prescribed core mission of helping individual whistleblowers to vague cheerleading instead.
In it to Spin It
The NGO’s real mission, from the Department of Health and Social Care’s perspective, is only too evident from the bulletins. The now trademark obsession with PR, in a small Office that now has a ridiculous proportion of spin doctors, is revealed in frequent encouragement to Speak Up Guardians to apply for the National Guardian’s awards. Awards are mentioned in eighteen of the 44 bulletins. Also frequently mentioned are promotional materials, the use of publicity films, requests for photographs for use in publicity and a general tone of self-congratulation. The latter without any evidence base and before any evaluation.
Of concern, Speak Up Guardians are being encouraged to think that ‘efficacy’ has been established. Bulletin 5, 5 August 2017:
Raising the profile of the project is a legitimate goal, but putting a gloss on it most certainly is not.
In bulletin 13, 6 October 2017 the NGO asked Speak Up Guardians to reach out to CQC inspectors and make sure that whistleblowing is reflected in reports.
However, in bulletin 36, 6 April 2018, the NGO looked as if it was trying to drum up Good News for its master, the CQC:
Reading these NGO bulletins is an exercise in deep frustration at missed opportunities for real governance and information sharing.
Where are the audit results?
Where are the tutorials on what can go badly wrong in cases and how to handle it?
Where are the discussions about the scenarios that might require a Speak Up Guardian to refer a case to the National Guardian?
Where is the discussion about what happens when Speak Up Guardians themselves suffer from reprisal for raising concerns and supporting those who raise concerns?
But who would want to talk about such nitty gritty realities if the intention is to blow a pink bubble gum fantasy.
Whistleblowers should be aware of this content from bulletin 2, 13 July 2017, and seek specific clarification from Speak Up Guardians about exactly how their data might be shared with Guardians from other trusts:
A key concession of weakness
In bulletin 19, 1 December 2017 the NGO gave this advice to Speak Up Guardians about HR involvement:
So there it is in black and white. Speak Up ‘Guardians’ will be forming judgments about the soundness of trusts’ processes when they do not have access to all of the information.
Also emphasising the weakness of Robert Francis’ Freedom To Speak Up model, two of the bulletins had an overbearing tone and implicitly reprimanded Speak Up Guardians who had not attended regional meetings, reminding them that they had signed ‘compacts’.
The control, of course, lay with employers.
Why design a toothless system? Unless of course one wants to give the appearance of action, whilst avoiding it.
Revealingly, bulletin 38, 19 April 2018 gave a crib sheet on how to talk to whistleblowers.
This raises all sorts of questions about the implementation of the Speak Up Guardian network and the sophistication of the work that is being done with people in serious crisis.
The disappearance of Speak Up Guardians
I already had some early warnings that Speak Up Guardians were starting to leave after a short period in service. The most recent indicator came from a mail shot which resulted in several out of office messages stating that various Speak Up Guardians had left, taken early retirement or were off sick. The disclosed bulletins now reveal that the National Guardian is also aware of the departures.
NGO bulletin 6, 11 August 2017 admitted that Speak Up Guardians were leaving in that it noted that an arrangement had been made for exit interviews.
Bulletin 24, 12 January 2018 made another similar reference to Speak Up Guardians stepping down and to exit interviews.
It is very worrying, if unsurprising, that Speak Up Guardians are stepping down after such a short time in post.
One would have expected the National Guardian to be open about this and acknowledge the issues in her official reports. I have not so far found any such references.
It is time for fewer hoorays and more honest reflection.
The model is untenable and unworkable and the National Guardian, if a true champion of the public interest, should be the first to admit it and to support real reform.