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Commissioners and businesses can achieve high ethical standards by working together

The Business Services Association and CSPL recently ran two round table meetings to discuss ethical standards for providers of public services.

High ethical standards can and should be achieved by any public service provider. The sector they come from is not material as long as expectations are made clear and there exists a culture which supports good behaviour and promotes prompt action whenever people fall short.

Procurement and contract-management processes are vital to aligning the values of the public sector client with any supplier. If a contract is poorly written, the wrong type of behaviour can occur or even be encouraged. If the contract is poorly managed, sub-standard performance can go unnoticed. That is in no-one’s best interests, least of all the service user.

Experience in recent years has shown that the capability of commissioners in promoting high ethical standards is variable. Therefore we should consider how this might be improved.

Pre-qualification questionnaires can help to understand contractors better, and client references are another good way of screening. But any such measures need to be seen in a positive light, with commissioners welcoming them as an essential part of their role. What they should not be seen as is merely another layer of bureaucracy imposed on them, with yet more form filling and tick-box exercises that bypass rather than enhance the judgement and skills they have developed during their professional life.

A good example is DEFRA’s balanced scorecard approach, which covers food procurement across government. This new evaluation method balances straightforward criteria, such as cost, with more complex criteria, such as health and wellbeing, resource efficiency and quality. It has meant that priority themes such as SME engagement and farm assurance can be built into procurement decisions.

Once the most suitable contractor is selected, good ongoing management comes down to an open, trusting relationship between the contractor and client. Some aspects of this, such as compliance with health and safety regulations, might be relatively straightforward. However, good behaviour is far harder to measure, and so the better the understanding between parties, the more likely that expected standards can be met and any challenges overcome. A contract that shares risk rather than transfers it all to the contractor can help with this.

One criterion when selecting a contractor should be how the company assures ethical behaviour in its workforce. There are tactics for doing this and BSA members have plenty of experience. Codes of conduct are often linked to performance incentives, while regular training ensures widespread understanding of the organisation’s values.

One BSA member looks to appraise staff not just on what they’ve achieved throughout the year, but how they achieved it, based on assessing behaviours aligned to the company’s core values.  These values are regularly communicated by the Chief Executive, with the code of conduct and zero tolerance approach to specific areas formally covered during national employee roadshows.

However, ethical standards are about more than just processes and tactics. A good provider creates the right culture. It is one where its values are at the heart of its business.  For example, Sodexo has just launched its ‘Public Services Pledge’ which commits to increasing accountability for performance, increasing transparency of taxpayers’ money and enhancing quality of life.

The best companies understand the importance of ethics and are so confident in the strength of their conduct that they use it to compete with each other. In doing so they demonstrate the intrinsic compatibility of the profit motive with ethical standards.

Melanie Maxwell Scott is the Director of Policy at The Business Services Association.


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