Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust were awarded the Freedom to Speak Up Organisation of the Year Award at the 2021 HSJ Awards with their demonstration of an integrated approach to speaking up.

Kirsty Dickson was appointed as the first Freedom to Speak Up Guardian at Northumbria, following recommendations in the Francis Report. Since then, she has been working proactively to make sure that Freedom to Speak Up is woven into the fabric of the organisation.

The senior leadership team at Northumbria has supported Kirsty’s vision from the beginning; viewing the guardian role as a venture which could benefit the organisation. Qualitative and quantitative feedback on speaking up cases is shared with the Board and Trust Committees, demonstrating an open and transparent approach from the organisation.

The Chairman, CEO, Directors and Non-Executive Directors have all demonstrated visible support at events. Not only does this present a valuable opportunity for networking, but workers also see senior leaders representing and role-modelling the concept of Freedom to Speak Up.

Kirsty has created a team of ‘shapers’; key stakeholders who contribute to the development of the Freedom to Speak Up processes tool. This forum allows a range of workers and leaders to understand the fundamentals of speaking up processes, to support the management of concerns and to adopt the vision. This also led to the creation of the ‘Champion of Speaking Up’ role and focus groups to reach a wider set of workers across the organisation.

There is an organisation-wide commitment to continuous learning. Organisational learning continued to develop during the fast-changing conditions caused by the pandemic. Kirsty used social media: Facebook to promote the role internally and reach different worker groups and Twitter to be more visible. She also used the website, allowing live feedback, and provided individuals with support and advice to ensure she was accessible throughout the pandemic.

Kirsty uses soft intelligence to ensure the speaking up culture grows and develops. This includes collecting information such as feedback from those who have spoken up, and how many workers raise concerns with their manager. Using this feedback, Kirsty is able to identify ‘hot spots’ where early intervention can prevent incidents or risks and improve the experience for workers and patients. This human emotional feedback also helps to understand potential barriers to speaking up, with themes shared with relevant teams, such as HR or the CEO, to ensure appropriate support is in place.

The joint efforts of Kirsty and the senior leadership team at Northumbria shows how an organisation can work collaboratively to improve the speaking up culture. The synergy between the guardian and the organisation is underpinned by the unilateral approach to Northumbria’s Freedom to Speak Up strategy.

Senior leaders understand the value in listening to the voices of the workers, ensuring actions are taken where necessary, and continuing to adapt as situations change. With the backing of the organisation, Kirsty is able to go above and beyond in her role as guardian, making speaking up accessible for everyone.

Kirsty said, “I feel privileged to have been appointed by Northumbria as one of the early guardians. The direction of the journey felt quite unknown. Supporting and sharing themes has provided the foundation for embedding speaking up; through listening to the many workers at Northumbria speaking up – by observation, understanding, facilitation from NGO to networks – and by connecting regionally and nationally with some amazing guardian buddies. The award is a symbol of the achievement of the workers Speaking UpListening Up, and Following Up throughout the five-year journey, and I am very pleased that these voices have been represented and recognised.  Thank you!”