Whistleblowing

Or is it Market Research and Truth-Telling?

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened — Churchill (the person, not the insurance dog)





Over the years I have become more reticent to be honest when I am asked about my qualifications. The reason for this is that my first major qualification was in Marketing, you know the one, getting people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like — and I have been a Chartered Marketer for about twenty years. After being politely asked to leave school by my headmaster following an exchange of “friendly banter” about his bald patch when he insisted I cut off my Mohican, and subsequently exiting the education system without any meaningful qualifications, a job in sales seemed my only route to financial freedom in Britain in the Eighties. By default, marketing then became my topic of choice when I finally started to study again in my late twenties. The fear of being an unqualified fifty-something desperately trying to survive in a competitive commercial world surrounded by bright young enthusiastic things armed with degrees scared the life out of me, so I enrolled in the Open University to secure my place in the “I’m as clever as the next one” rat race. With hindsight, it’s clear I worried way too much about the expected influx of smart young people armed with degrees who would be competing with me for work. Sorry Generation Y, but the promise of your arrival on the scene was seriously overhyped.

I started to learn about marketing, real marketing and market research when I was a young salesman. I have always liked the concept in what I call its purest form. Life as a salesman can be tough and rejection on a daily basis is part of the gig, so I naturally warmed to the idea that whatever I was selling should be shaped by, and designed around the needs of the end-users. Which salesman doesn’t want to knock on an open door selling products that customers really want? I think seeking to understand the wants, needs and experiences of customers, is a universally applicable principle whether you work in the Private or Public Sector. According to Clayton Christensen, he of coveted Harvard innovation guru status, eighty per-cent of new products launched each year, fail. Have you noticed no service the Public Sector launches is ever officially acknowledged as failing, though I would hazard a guess the true failure rate is higher than the Private Sector; it’s just that there is as yet no meaningful way of measuring service failures in the Public Sector. Market-share is not an issue when customers have no choice.

As a young salesman at the sharp end, having been sucked into having to try to sell what was available, rather than what was needed, by both small and large blue-chip employers on more than one occasion, I came to despise the waste-of-money, balloons-and-t-shirt’s approach to attracting business which often represents the common view of marketing. WOMBAT marketing relies heavily on fluff and Public Relations to peddle myths and sell polished turds. We can all think of something we were enticed to buy with a slick or novel promotional campaign that we have never used or which promised the earth and then broke or malfunctioned on its first outing. Our cupboards are bursting, our shelves are straining under the weight, and our landfill sites are filling to the brim with WOMBAT inspired purchases. Scented sticks in a jar, picnic pants, spider catcher or fondue set anyone?

But if you’ve ever worked at the sharp end of sales, selling commission-only products as I used to, you quickly realise that if what you are selling does not meet the needs of the people you want to buy it, you are effectively screwed. I remain eternally grateful that during this period in my early adult life, the link between a delighted customer and the health of my bank balance became quickly and blindingly obvious to me. I still recall the dissatisfied customer who politely but firmly reminded me that it was ultimately his money that was paying my wages, not my bosses (public sector take note). This exposure to real life, as I like to call it, teaches a person the value of seeking and making time for feedback. As you might imagine, I had quite the difficulty describing my time in the private sector to my new, well-meaning, but highly cosseted colleagues when I joined the Public Sector in my late thirties. Most of whom had never worked in any other setting. “He’s saying we could improve our services, and save money if we listen to the service-users, whatever is he on about”; you get the gist.

Listening to what customers are saying, really listening, committing time and effort into giving them opportunities to be heard, and treating the emerging insights like the precious gold dust they are is simply not the done thing in the Public Sector. If good marketing is constantly looking under the stones to find what your customers don’t like, looking for their pain points and trying to find ways of alleviating them, then I think good marketers who enter the public sector are naturally predisposed, I would say almost hopelessly destined, doomed even, to become questioning employees. The assured destruction of their careers lies in the seeds of their curiosity and any innate desire they may possess to improve things. People who seek to make meaningful improvements and identify areas where services can be developed to be more effective and efficient for all involved, are generally viewed with great suspicion and quickly ostracised in Public Sector circles. Then, when all the avenues for improvement they thought were open to them are exhausted and patience with the prevailing attitude of the status quo runs out, they finally decide to call-out the complacency and poor practice they can see all around them for what it is, the Public Sector applies one of its most pejorative, dehumanising and toxic labels to the curious passionate empathising truth-tellers that find themselves in its ranks; it marks them out as whistleblowers. The King may be in the altogether, but you are not supposed to say it out loud.

Every Private Sector organization I have ever worked for has wanted to learn from the people who purchased, used and consumed its products and services, but those I have worked for in the Public Sector have not. Though the truism of an unresponsive disengaged Public Sector is never challenged, we all know its the case, I still find it incredible and ironic that the organisations we collectively fund to provide services for the common good are less interested in the views of the people who use their services than most companies in the Private Sector. Just watch the Senior Directors of any public body — NHS Trusts being prime candidates — when they are forced, generally kicking and screaming, to meet with members of the communities they serve at public meetings to discuss proposals or planned changes to services. The first and most obvious thing you will notice from their body language is that they simply do not want to be there. In fact, they would rather be anywhere else. From the look of terror on some of their faces, being chased by a wild and hungry bear would be a preferable option to facing the public who are paying their wages. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, they are like fish out of water.

The reason is quite simple. Most people in senior positions in our Public Sector do not see that any of the decisions they make should be influenced in any way by the public they serve, and whose money they rely on to pay for the essentials each month; stabling, horse feed, villa in Provence etc. The temerity of those pesky taxpayers who dare to ask questions and want meaningful explanations about why the public sector is thinking of changing something they have come to rely on, is an anathema to the rigid hierarchical cultures they preside over and that dominate our Public Sector Services. The hierarchies in many public sector institutions survive in echo chambers. That is to say, they do not, whether by design or simply the result of being cosily enmeshed in self-serving sycophancy, knowingly ever expose themselves to views, opinions or even empirical data that might collide with their view of the world, splintering the carefully protected and fragile paradigm through which they make sense of the universe. It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.

Only the most obstinate could deny that we need people in our Public Sector Services who want to identify areas for improvement and make positive changes for both service users and employees. Intrapreneurs who constantly push organisations towards better models of what good might look like. Perhaps we need to rethink the term whistleblower? I have the badge myself and wear it now with great pride, it was after all the most expensive of the numerous qualifications I have amassed, costing a career with generous pension contributions and benefits most private sector companies can only dream of providing their employees. But I have to confess, I’m still slightly uncomfortable with the term.

So what happened I hear you ask? How does someone enthusiastic, driven with a wealth of experience, more qualifications than you could poke a stick at, a small smattering of intelligence, a track record of focusing on the needs of service-users, and a strong moral compass to boot, get hounded out of a career with the nations best-loved institution? The answer lies in the question. Unfortunately and unknown to me, these are precisely the qualities and attributes that are not wanted in the Public Sector. The two worlds of public and private, though sometimes overlapping, operate in extremely different climates, and the NHS is at the far end of the public sector climate continuum. It is effectively its own planet. I was always doomed to fail, I just didn’t know it and I learned the hard way. I was used to contributing and bringing value to my role, showing up, bringing my whole self to work, engaging, asking questions, seeking to find and solve problems. And this is where it all went sideways, so to speak. Asking questions to which the answers may be unfavourable is a big no-no in the public sector. And looking for problems to solve is akin to devil worshipping in the cafe at lunchtime.

The monthly and annual reports containing information on the good, the not so good and the downright alarming, that I and my team conscientiously produced and then distributed to the Chief Executive, Director’s, Chairman and Board of Governors, made me Mr Unpopular and Public Sector Enemy Number One in the NHS Trust I worked for. I genuinely thought that people in positions of responsibility would want to know what the problems were in the business they were paid handsomely to oversee. After all, you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. By now you can probably see where this is going. I was approaching my role as if I were still in the Private Sector, feeding intelligence from the marketplace into the corporate centre. I had completely failed to understand that the Public Sector does not want to know what customers think of its services. Acquiring knowledge from the marketplace in the Private Sector is seen as an opportunity, being made aware of problems in the Public Sector is viewed as a liability. I finally spat my dummy out when a director asked me to undertake a survey using only the questions we knew would get favourable answers-he needed a positive story to tell to the board. My response was the nail in the coffin of my career in the NHS. If we had been selling cheap widgets I might have acquiesced, but we were dealing in life and death and I couldn’t be a party to such wasteful and meaningless activity.

Personally, I think we should create an honorary taxpayer-funded members club for anyone labelled a whistleblower, and everyone in this club should be inducted into some sort of hall of fame for services to the nation. However, I am conscious for many the “W” term still has a derogatory, almost secretive, feel to it. It’s as if whistleblowers are naturally nefarious untrustworthy people who have done something wrong, broken ranks with colleagues, disrespecting unwritten codes. They should therefore expect retribution and estrangement from their employer, their former workmates and the wider world of work. To me, whistleblowers are merely truth-tellers, passionate service improvers of whom the vast majority care about their chosen fields of work and the often vulnerable people they are paid to serve. You have to be passionate to care enough to make the significant sacrifices many whistleblowers have. Now, where did I put that Universal Credit claim form…

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