Monthly Archives: June 2018
What Whistleblowers Really Want
June 21 2018
”The real scandal is not that no-one knows. It’s that everyone knows.”
Not said, as you might imagine, about the events at Gosport War Memorial Hospital but about the childrens heart unit at the Bristol Royal Infirmary 30 years ago. And yet, as applicable today as then, despite all the lessons learned (or not) over the years.
There are many aspects of this which will be wearily familiar to those involved in previous NHS scandals (Morecambe Bay, Stafford) and those in other sectors:-
– warnings or concerns raised by junior staff were ignored or hidden away
– senior staff and colleagues were aware but turned a blind eye
– complainants, both internal and external, were treated as troublemakers
– a tendency to close ranks against those raising concerns
– missed opportunities: all too many moments when something could have been said, should have been said but was left unsaid
– retaliation (or threats of it) against staff. They were warned that if people continued to speak out, it could undermine the good work being done. Some staff highlighting concerns faced “a certain amount of ostracisation”
– a culture of deference: both to senior staff and to the institution
– viewing the protection of the institution’s perceived reputation as more important than dealing with its failings.
Sound familiar? The fact that an institution consistently admired by the public could develop a culture quite as bad and – in its effects on people – worse than in less admired sectors (such as banking or the press) shows how widespread these problems are. Unsurprising really. Most people are not heroes and find it easier to take their cues from those around them.
But the most shocking (and, so far, least commented on) aspect of this story is that even 12 different sorts of investigations over 27 years failed to uncover the full facts or lead to effective action. How can this be? Well, different bodies with different agendas, powers, without access to all the information and sometimes lacking the relevant skillset do not result in the ideal investigative set up. But in truth, institutions – like most people – do not really want to know about their failings.
So it is all too easy – and sometimes unfair – to criticise individuals for not speaking up (see here a nurse describe her shame at not having done more) and to think that training them to have the courage to do so is all that’s needed. Necessary as this may be, it places too great a burden on them. And lets others off the hook.
Too often the focus is on those who knew but did nothing and on the lessons to be learned but not on the critical bit in the middle – the integrity and thoroughness of the investigation. Without it no-one will come forward and “lessons learned” will be seen as lessons which are never learned by those who need to do so.
“Freedom to speak” guardians (the NHS’s most recent attempt to create a better culture) are a nice idea. But what, really, can they do? What those who raise concerns want is not just the freedom to speak but the knowledge that action will be taken once they have spoken.
What they need above all are trustworthy, fearless, independent and tenacious investigators who will really listen to them and investigate properly. And an institution humble enough from the top down to realise – and really mean it this time – that it is only by understanding its failings and mistakes and learning from them that it can improve for the benefit of those it is there to serve.
Only then can individuals have the confidence to know that speaking up is not just the right – but the professional – thing to do. And that it will not be in vain.
The Art of Reputation
June 2 2018
As this fascinating programme shows, the art market and finance have much in common, well illustrated by the story of Salvator Mundi, painted by Leonardo and sold for an eye watering $400 million last year.
This painting disappeared from view after Charles 1’s collection was dispersed following his execution. No-one knows what happened to it. It reappears out of obscurity in 1958 described as a painting by a follower of Leonardo and is sold – for the not very princely sum of £45. It is only when it was eventually acquired by some art dealers and attributed to Leonardo himself that its value shot up. How clever of those dealers to spot that it was by the master himself and not some unknown follower.
And even cleverer of yet another dealer to acquire it for $80 million and almost immediately resell it to a Russian for $120 million. (Though perhaps that part of the story has not had a happy ending, the Russian client now suing the dealer for the difference between what he paid for his art collection and the price the dealer acquired the paintings for. How very remiss of them not to agree whether the dealer was acting as agent for the buyer or as principal.)
Still, it is amazing what an attribution to a well-known artist, one moreover who did not produce very many paintings, can do. Much like a AAA-rated credit rating applied to an obscure credit product. Still, unlike CDOs, Leonardo paintings cannot be reproduced. And so its price went on its merry way into the stratosphere. It is now in storage, unseen by anyone other than its guards one imagines, until it reappears as the star exhibit at a Middle East museum to bestow its blessings on its owners and mesmerised visitors.
At least it will be seen. It has been estimated that 80% of the world’s art is in storage, much of it in freeports, from where it is both untaxed and can easily be transported from country to country with no-one, let alone the authorities, knowing anything. It is art as a store of value, a prettier version of bitcoin. And like all these alternatives to ordinary money, the authorities are now taking an interest in who is buying, who is selling, how they are paying and where the money to pay comes from. As the representative from the US Attorney’s office points out, the secrecy surrounding the players in the art market, the ease with which art can move from country to country and the inexact or even irrational science of art valuation and pricing shows “how easy it is to use art to launder money”.
At around the time when banks were becoming ever more heavily regulated in response to their own difficulties, key art market players did consider adopting guidelines to manage the reputational and legal risks of their industry, guidelines drawn up by the Basel Institute on Governance. They did not do so. Why? As the appropriately named Dr Thomas Christ has pointed out, the art market was perhaps more afraid of losing sales than of losing its reputation.
Unlike banks. For now.