Interviews with gardaí highlight discontent

Sometimes, a study or report is important, not in what’s being said, but for who’s saying it, writes Michael Clifford

Interviews with gardaí highlight discontent

Sometimes, a study or report is important, not in what’s being said, but for who’s saying it, writes Michael Clifford.

The Play Your Part — Cultural Audit of An Garda Siochána is one such report. It was published yesterday, with little fanfare. Between the covers, there is nothing that is terribly new. But the content is based on around 6,500 interviews with members of the force. This is how they see the job, how they see their role in enhancing the job, what they see as positive, and what they identify as shortcomings.

Take one of the thorniest issues in the force: The business of speaking out about wrongdoing. Speaking out in this instance is not necessarily about going outside the organisation with complaints. It refers to, more often than not, even pointing out malpractice to senior officers or supervisors.

“Members described how they feel they cannot speak up, due to either fear (fear of repercussion) or futility (nothing will come of it),” states the report, conducted by PwC.

"It is apparent that there is a climate where people believe that senior management don’t encourage open communication or two-way feedback."

Nothing new there. The best-known Garda whistleblower, Maurice McCabe, was subjected to a raft of reprisal measures (apart from anything that may emerge from the Charleton Tribunal), after he spoke out. Initially, inquiries into his concerns over malpractice in criminal investigations and widespread ticket-fixing suggested there was nothing to see here. If he hadn’t been doggedly determined to get to the truth, he would have had to resign himself to the futility of speaking out.

What is significant about the report published yesterday is that, quite obviously, plenty of others are minded to speak out, but refrain from doing so for the above reasons. That’s a long way from January, 2014, when then commissioner, Martin Callinan, told a Public Accounts Committee that there were only two members in a force of 13,000 who had identified wrongdoing.

Equally, the results are an indictment of Callinan’s successor, Nóirín O’Sullivan’s stated attempts to listen to “our critical friends”, as she termed whistleblowers. If her intention was to create an atmosphere where speaking out to better the force was encouraged, she failed miserably. To be fair to her, she might justifiably claim that other issues forced her from the job, before she could bed down a new culture. Some might accept that reasoning on her part. One way or the other, the culture of fear within the ranks persists.

The report addresses another issue that goes to the heart of recent scandals in the force: performance.

“There is a sense, across the organisation, that, individually, everyone feels they are accountable for their own actions, but they don’t see other people being held to account,” the report states.

“In addition, there are significant gaps in the performance-management processes, with poor performance not addressed and good performance not recognised.”

This echoes problems that have arisen about some people not doing the job properly, and others having little incentive to do the right thing, because good performance is simply not valued.

Then, there is this: “Linked to performance management is the perception that the focus of the organisation is too much on outputs rather than outcomes, at both an individual and organisational level.”

Breath tests, anyone? The generation of over 1m false breath tests certainly suggests that output is the key driver, rather than road safety.

All of these issues have been raked over in reports from tribunals, commissions of investigation, and the Garda Inspectorate. The key difference here is that management will have to grasp that it is not just those on the outside who recognise the glaring shortcomings.

There are positives, most particularly the retention of an espris de corps within the organisation.

If harnessed positively, that could be a major asset entering what, it is hoped, will be a time of transformative change.

On that note, confidence is apparently not too high that things will change, as the report’s authors detected a “high level of scepticism as to whether any action will be taken as a result of the Cultural Audit”.

It’s difficult to blame the scepticism. The next big day in the neverending delivery of reports into the force should be the outcome of the Commission on the Future of Policing, later this year. Let’s hope that will usher in real advances, and take change off the never-never.

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