Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Compliance and Cover-up

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to conclude that there must have been a toxic culture of cover-up and denial in Nottinghamshire and the City of Nottingham. The Guardian quotes Professor Alexis Jay, chair of The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse as saying:  
“For decades, children who were in the care of the Nottinghamshire councils suffered appalling sexual and physical abuse, inflicted by those who should have nurtured and protected them.
“Those responsible for overseeing the care of children failed to question the extent of sexual abuse or what action was being taken. Despite decades of evidence and many reviews showing what needed to change, neither of the councils learned from their mistakes, meaning that more children suffered unnecessarily.” 

What takes a great deal more thinking about is how a toxic culture of cover-up and denial came about. Of course there may have been some very bad, and very incompetent, people in key positions, but that does not explain why the abuse went unaddressed for years and years, persisting for decades despite scrutiny and audit and inspection and all the other apparatus of local government.

I suspect that an important factor must have been a corporate mindset in which people knew what happened if they raised concerns or spoke out. Rather than an open reporting culture in which everybody is encouraged to speak out if they see bad or dangerous practice, or if they see wrongdoing, it seems likely that there must have been an expectation that people kept quiet and toed the line. If you had a suspicion something was not right, you didn’t talk to your boss or your colleagues about it. You buttoned your lip, convinced yourself that you must be paranoid and kept your head down.

The frightening thing is that many of us have been there. On a few occasions in my own career the thought that something might be seriously amiss with the behaviour of a colleague crossed my mind. And on each occasion I convinced myself that I was over-reacting and when I woke up the following morning I had convinced myself that my own judgement was wrong and I felt relieved that I wasn’t going to make myself hugely unpopular.

But perhaps I should have said something? Who knows? In one instance things came to light many years later and it all made sense, but at the time I would have needed someone to help me overcome my own self-doubts and what I have to confess were not unreasonable fears about what happened to whistle-blowers in the organisation I worked for. 

Only a change to the culture of local authorities and other health and social care organisations will make a difference. Somehow we all have to become much more committed to openness and frankness. Those who perpetrate abuse in organisations survive and sometimes flourish because they understand how the toxic culture of cover-up and denial works. If it wasn’t there, they probably wouldn’t be there either; but if they were, they would not dare to abuse a child.

Compliance cultures – in which employees are expected to toe the corporate line – not only frustrate proper learning and corporate development. They foster exactly the kind of silence that nurtures and protects abusers and puts children at risk.