Grenfell Tower, whistleblowing and the human factor

Whenever we hear of another disaster or whistle blow, we wonder how or why it happened. Why didn’t anyone say something sooner? and if they did, why didn’t ‘they’ or those in power do something to prevent it? These are the kind of questions we find ourselves asking, for example, about Grenfell Tower.

But it is rarely one big individual wrong decision that is the cause of a disaster  but more often a combined minor mistake or ‘the computer said no’, a lack-of-thinking mentality that led to a crisis.

Many people who try to speak up when they see something wrong will tell you (I speak from experience) that they weren’t listened to, or were ostracised, berated, and suffered severe consequences for doing so. Yet many of those speaking up are doing so in the public interest, on behalf of others, especially the sick, vulnerable and at risk.

Organisational policies along with political correctness, social graces and good manners dictate that one then enters into what can be a farcical volley of document tennis when trying to raise concerns. Many organisations give themselves 28 days in which to respond to any correspondence, so your email is usually held until the deadline approaches.

Meanwhile, within the organisation, institutional blindness or ignorance can be prolific. There can be death by policy – a plethora of policies that neither work or dovetail with another. Incidentally, there were over 30 different organisational policies in place at the time of my whistle blow which weren’t followed. What did they do? Write some more.

Then documents were lost, shredded, denied, withheld from investigators or rewritten. The majority involved in listening or processing my concerns when I spoke up, became part of the problem, part of the quagmire of red tape quick sand.  Who should we fear most – whistle blowers and those raising concerns? Or the great mass of ‘un-thinkers’, those that either don’t see, or do but fail to act or those who act as mere megaphone puppets, perpetuating the red tape phenomenon without stopping to think or question.

I am literally sickened by what happened to me when I tried to raise concerns, but I am heartened by what I witnessed during recent disasters – the terrorist attacks and Grenfell Tower. I saw individuals and communities responding and speaking up by their actions – goodwill and an innate sense of unity.  They didn’t wait for the memo to be circulated or a policy to kick in; they used compassion and their initiative.

Raising concerns or whistle blowing within the NHS is difficult.  Not because the NHS is complex, but because it is now in chaos.  There are systemic issues that need addressing.  There needs to be a complaints, concerns and a whistle blow process that is useable and overlaps across organisations – like mental health and housing – without repeating whole cycles of mad document tennis before a disaster or any action is taken.

Given the human element, its unlikely any organisation will get everything right. But it is the degree and quality of human element that is also the deciding factor in the outcome of disasters.

‘If it takes a system to raise a concern, it takes a system to bury a concern.’

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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