Existing IT tools ‘won’t cut it’ for NHS whistleblowing procedures

NHS England’s first national whistleblowing policy to help health professionals raise concerns will have knock-on effects across the public sector. Ben Western of Software Europe takes a look at how it will affect IT management.

The arrival of the national whistleblowing policy shouldn’t be a surprise to NHS trusts. The initial consultation took place in November last year and we’ve already had trusts talk to us about receiving policy support in the last few months.

However, forewarned is not always forearmed.

There’s a lot to do and not much time. Trusts will have to ensure that the policies are simple and easy to understand, support as much of the workforce as possible and make it crystal clear what sort of disclosures or malpractices are covered. Transparency around whom and how to approach managers with any concerns is paramount.

Existing local policies and procedures will need urgent review to take into account the new whistleblowing policy. But some trusts we speak to don’t have their own whistleblowing policy, and others that can demonstrate a policy lack the tools to effectively manage any cases raised.

It is clear that enforcing a set of standards fine-tuned to each specific trust before the 2017 deadline will be a considerable challenge. And IT will have a big role to play in making this happen.

We’ve seen some organisations customising IT helpdesk systems for use in tracking cases, but generally Excel spreadsheets have become the de facto tool for logging all types of employee relations case. Unfortunately, Excel doesn’t cut the mustard here. It just isn’t going to give staff the confidence that whistleblowing cases are being handled properly.

For a start, Excel lacks the functionality to record key data, make it available to multiple people, or provide any sort of timeline or deadline alerts. No surprise really, it wasn’t designed for this job.

But, as anyone in IT will know, Excel also isn’t the right tool to lock down and protect the type of highly sensitive data being processed. Using Excel to manage whistleblowing data presents a big risk to the organisation.

Appropriate technologies

So, with commonly-used tools not up to scratch, we need to consider what the system needs to do, and what technologies will do that best.

Human resources needs the right tools to do the job. Without them, they will be hamstrung and no employee will have the confidence that a whistleblowing policy is going to be taken seriously.

Any whistleblowing IT system needs to keep HR updated at every stage of the process. Email reminders and alerts are essential to keep the case on track. The system must be able to log concerns appropriately, securely and with no details missing.

Depending on the case type, it should be possible to mark up and treat certain cases as sensitive and confidential.

It should also be possible to generate reports and automate the sharing of that information with senior management and others so they can evaluate the success of the policy and evaluate trends.

Review and analysis

A cloud system will make life easier for the IT department because it won’t rely on existing infrastructure.

But even with a cloud system, IT will still need to help the HR teams deploy the appropriate system by providing due diligence and governance support – for instance, by reviewing the security aspects of the system.

There are important questions to ask: is it secure? Where is the data held? What infrastructure is required by the organisation to physically access the system – broadband, a computer, or a corporate network?

The service provider will need to produce an information governance document that includes a full breakdown of the system, which will also need reviewing by IT.   

Analytics are also essential. A good system should be able to manage and interrogate case data, and provide insights that managers can use to proactively identify issues and intervene.

For example, if multiple whistleblowing concerns are raised against a specific line manager, HR should be able to investigate and implement additional training or other programme to rectify the issue early.

For that, the IT system chosen must include built-in reporting and analytics functions. If not, a separate system would have to be procured, or – worse – a process to extract the appropriate information from Excel would have to be developed.

In the next 12 months, trusts will have to review the new national policy, draft, tweak or merge local policies to suit their employees. But they can’t implement those policies without the right tools, and IT leaders now have the chance to get influence the system for the benefit of everyone.

Image credit: Flickr – Kate Ter Haar


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