What does a protective organisational culture look like?

In the wake of the crisis following revelations about the behaviour of some Oxfam staff in Haiti, the International Development sector has been gripped by the urgent need to put in place robust policies and processes to ensure safeguarding of vulnerable people in their orbit, be they participants in their programme work or members of staff.  International NGOs have reviewed and strengthened their policies and put in place new procedures in an effort to ensure that abusive activities are prevented, and are brought to light and addressed where they occur. Safeguarding staffing has been strengthened, Trustees have refreshed their focus on safeguarding and training programmes have been put in place. Investigations have been conducted out to seek out historic incidents. Serious Incident Reports to the Charity Commission have been made where cases come to light. And today a Safeguarding Summit has taken place in London, hosted by DFID.

All this is positive. Any steps that can make people safer are to be welcomed, especially where organisations operate in challenging environments. But policies and procedures can only take us so far. They are necessary but not sufficient. The Secretary of State for International Development called for “moral leadership”. The International Development Select Committee has called for “fundamental culture change”. These aspects of culture and leadership are essential if safeguarding policies are to be implemented effectively (in any sector, including aid and development). But they present greater challenges. There is no off-the-shelf template for culture change and it is rarely the primary focus of sector leaders challenged by resource constraints, compliance and regulatory requirements, competitive market pressures and the complexities of the development and humanitarian world.

Many organisations in the sector can point to shiny values statements, but these are rarely the central focus when decisions are being made and are often left on the shelf once adopted. Yet charities, especially in the arena of international development, think of themselves as values-driven organisations.

The question then is how to embed these values into an organisational culture which is most conducive to the protection of all those who engage with the charity, in the field or in the office. What would such a culture look like?

I have written an earlier article on Culture and Leadership setting out some of the challenges of culture change and indicating how organisations could go about analysing the culture they have, the culture they want and how to get from the former to the latter (https://worldtorights.org/2016/12/02/culture-leadership/). But that piece did not make specific recommendations on the cultural elements that organisations should adopt – that is a matter for each organisation to define for itself through the engagement of its people. However, in the light of the current safeguarding focus, and the related appeals to address this through culture and leadership, I have been considering what kind of cultures would be most conducive to the achievement of safeguarding objectives. I am calling this a “protective culture”. What would such a protective culture look like?

Of course each organisation needs to examine this in its own context, based on its values and its operating environment – culture change cannot be imposed from above but must be built on a foundation of full consultation and engagement. But, that said, I believe there are a number of key elements that organisations need to consider in defining a set of explicit cultural norms that are likely to encourage and support the protection and safeguarding of all their people and stakeholders. Of course such a list can only be a starting point for thinking about a protective culture in a specific organisation.

Here then is my initial attempt at a list of ten key elements of a protective and caring culture (with thanks to Jo Davies of United Purpose for her helpful comments on an earlier draft). I would very much welcome input and comment.

  • Putting partner communities and rights holders first: the focus has to be on the people the charities are working in solidarity with. Their interests must always come first, above (for example) concerns about the organisation’s reputation. Of course this doesn’t make decisions easy, but it is a mindset which should help remind us of the need to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable people with whom we come into contact.
  • No Silos: a protective culture has to be one to which the whole organisation is committed, in principle and practice. It will be undermined if different teams or offices follow different behaviours, keep information to themselves or try to protect their own place in the organisation above the interest of the whole, and even above the interests of the rights holders.
  • Personal Responsibility: to be effective a protective culture needs people to understand that they all bear responsibility for doing the right thing. They can’t leave it to someone else to take the action that is needed. If someone notices something they think isn’t right they should raise their concerns through the available channels without feeling it is someone else’s responsibility to do so, not theirs.
  • Wellbeing: stressed people facing daily pressures will often make bad decisions, or let things go because they don’t get to the top of the priority list. An organisation which cares about protecting its staff and beneficiaries will pay attention to worklife balance and wellbeing among its people. If an organisation has a caring culture, where people look after one another, abuse is less likely to happen and less likely to go unchallenged.
  • Internal Communications: as in “no silos” it is vital that people and teams share information openly and enthusiastically as part of “how we do things round here” and see the whole as a single team. But of course confidentiality needs to be respected appropriately (in accordance with defined policies so it doesn’t get in the way of sharing information about safeguarding risks).
  • Mutual Respect and Trust: Respect means treating different opinions and ideas positively, not dismissing them. People won’t speak up about concerns if they think they’ll be ridiculed or put down. People shouldn’t assume that someone has ulterior motives (positioning for their own advantage etc) for expressing an opinion. The starting point should be a presumption of good intent. This respectful culture helps build the trust which is essential if people are going to share information about safeguarding issues.
  • Learn from Mistakes and Failures: if everyone is afraid to say that something didn’t go right then information will be hidden and partial, and opportunities to learn will be lost. A protective culture would have to be open to mistakes being seen as an opportunity to learn rather than a basis for censure and punishment. Abuse of power is not a “mistake”, but we need to encourage honesty rather than cover-up when issues come to light. A culture which fosters an honest approach to failure is also one in which problems will be revealed rather than hidden.
  • Embrace and Manage Risk and encourage autonomy in decision-making: accept that things don’t always go well but don’t let this stop you trying new things. Define your risk appetite – where is it good to take a chance and where is it necessary to be more risk averse? In the current climate, there is a danger that the desire to reduce risk and avoid crises could lead to an over cautious, directive culture. But that would be the opposite of what is needed to ensure that safeguarding risks are brought to light. Such a culture is one where people try to avoid criticism and cover their backs. This is the kind of culture where people will be afraid to come forward. We need to avoid safeguarding becoming a tick box exercise that undermines autonomy. Decisions are often complex and involve choices between less-than-ideal scenarios. In such cases greater autonomy is likely to be more effective in reaching the best protective outcomes.
  • Exemplary Leadership: leaders need to embody the explicit culture and values defined by the organisation, support staff to live by these, set an example, challenge breaches of culture, engage staff early in addressing challenges, empower where possible, direct only where necessary, give honest feedback, embrace change… Be seen to be championing the culture at every opportunity.
  • Be aware of power relationships:  Power differentials and relationships are central to the idea of vulnerability, and therefore for the protection of those who may be vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, bullying or harassment. Empowering people reduces their vulnerability. In organisations, this awareness can be reflected in everyday interactions which need to be based on respect for colleagues ahead of respect for hierarchy.

Without culture change, built through engagement and led and modelled by determined and caring leaders, even the best safeguarding policies and procedures are likely to fall short. The cultural dimension needs to be addressed. I hope these reflections are helpful to that endeavour.

If you are looking for support, to help your organisation through this process, let me know.safeguarding

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