A shift to a new culture – the importance of independent investigations

Every week, the media covers another story of patient harm, bullied staff or sexually abused students. No sector is exempt, with recent examples including NHS organisations, universities and a large law firm. Each story will resonate and shock in its own way. But too often we overlook that what is driving the coverage and comment is not the actual event, but the failure of the responsible organisation to investigate it thoroughly, fairly and transparently at the very beginning.

For too many organisations, the default position is to deal with allegations and complaints in-house, to carry out an internal investigation. Some might claim this is to keep issues ‘in the family’ and away from public or legal scrutiny. Others might say using internal resources could make sense on the grounds of expediency and cost. My experience, and the recent spate of well-publicised failings bears this out, is that internal investigations are a false economy.

In too many cases, this approach will increase hurt and stress to individuals. During my work with Sir Robert Francis on the public inquiry into the failings at MId-Staffs hospital and subsequent investigations into the fitness of senior NHS directors, I have come across far too many people whose livelihoods, happiness and mental health have been damaged by unfairness or failures in the investigative process. Senior leaders should also reflect that poorly governed investigations can cost the organisation more, not just financially but in terms of reputation and punitive regulatory action. There is also a wider societal impact, with the loss of trust in both public and private bodies to do the right thing when something goes wrong.

There are options to help put this right, to drive fairness and transparency in investigations from the start and properly engage with the individuals affected throughout the process. There needs to be a shift to a new culture, one that positively embraces independent investigations, experience and expertise, and the need to share findings and recommendations more widely. We must also stop the merry-go-round of directors and decision-makers who may be at fault simply jumping ship to new leadership roles. I am pleased that Baroness Dido Harding, chair of NHS Improvement, is currently considering my recommendation that the NHS sets up a Health Directors’ Standards Council to investigate and bar directors guilty of serious misconduct. I hope this moves forward quickly.

Only by getting to the truth can the correct action be taken and lessons properly learned – and the rights and dignity of individuals who have suffered or are brave enough to speak up be protected.

Article written by Tom Kark.

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