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Why Standards continue to matter

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Accountability, Ethical standards

David Prince, former member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, gave a speech on why ethical standards continue to be of the upmost importance in local government to the Standards Conference for monitoring officers on 6 July 2016.

Monitoring Officers and legal officers stand on the front line of upholding the Seven Nolan Principles.

Principle 7 – Leadership – states: public office holders should exhibit all the principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

It’s never an easy place to be as a Monitoring Officer; it’s often unpleasant, lonely and poorly supported by others; sometimes career threatening. It’s vital they have the support of a robust and resilient Independent Person. The two together have to operate poorly written legislation with no credible sanctions against unacceptable member behaviour. But it is their turf and, like all front line troops, they are expected to stay steady under bombardment, and from time to time go over the top with all guns blazing.

I want to consider these three areas:

1 Why standards matter for officers, their council and the public

2 What's changed and what’s constant

3 Some challenges and suggestions for the future


1 Why standards matter

Undoubtedly public officials want to do the right thing. They don't fiddle their expenses. Or give jobs to their friends.

As Nolan has it, they each display selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty.

But they need also to do the right thing so their elected bodies can achieve benefit for their inhabitants. It's much wider than just personal and interpersonal ethics.

Senior officers have a duty to promote ethical behaviour and transparency wherever public money is spent, wherever policy choices are discussed, where choices are made between competing priorities or conflicting interest groups, where decisions are taken about resource levels and allocation, which in austerity increasingly assume an ethical and moral dimension in their impact on vulnerable groups.

They stand in the same place as NHS Board members who now sign a personal statement that says:

“To justify the trust placed in me by patients, service users and the public, I will abide by the (NHS Governing Body Standards) at all times when at the service of the NHS. I understand that I must act in the interests of patients, service

users and the community I serve, and that I must uphold the law and be fair and honest in all my dealings”.

Similarly, the Local Public Services Senior Managers’ Code of Ethics requires officers to “uphold the principles of representative government and ensure the effective working of the democratic process” It continues:

: “…any unprofessional behaviour detracts from the important services provided to the public and harms the profession’s reputation and, with it, the ability to perform effectively.

That's sadly been borne out in local government in a series of recent scandals. Inquiries have highlighted that poor or failed services to vulnerable people have been accompanied by ineffective scrutiny, lack of transparency, failure to listen and poor behaviour by staff and members.

High standards and the values they enshrine are a public expectation and a public good in a civilised society. Their foundation goes to the heart of Western civilisation - based on the ethical fundamentals of Life and Liberty, and the ethical principles of Equality, Dignity and Worth. They need to be supported by ethically based leadership to deliver society’s priorities and objectives.

So, at a practical level, every officer’s planning, commissioning and procurement decisions have a major impact on the lives and life quality of real people – many of whom are vulnerable, and few have any other choices. So standards do matter.


2 Let’s move on now to what's changed and what's constant.

Local government standards have never had the proper political priority and political leadership they deserve. They've always been seen as about process rather than behaviours, or for officers, or only being needed in other councils under different political control or, worse, as a vehicle for petty and malicious political point scoring.

Legislation has veered between laisser-faire at the end of last century and excessive micro control in the Local Government Act 2000, and has been done to Councils rather than with them and for them. Since the Localism Act 2012 councillors have moved from being far more controlled than MPs and quangocrats, to becoming largely self-regulated. Localism has freed them from the central controls, inspection and oversight of the former Audit Commission and SFE regimes.

Which is not at all to deny the need for greater localism in what is still one of the most centralised systems in Europe. But standards devolution has been implemented so as to result in a locally driven variety of Codes, often with inconsistent practice across tiers, and virtually no sanctions. And I continue to be disappointed at the lack of any political leadership or championing of standards by any of the main parties or by the Local Government Association on behalf of the sector and the “brand” of local government.

It was said in Parliament in 2012 that if councillors went astray the key agencies were the ballot box and the policeman, and the armchair auditor would keep a beady eye on spending.

Well, the armchair auditor seems to have got bored, the police haven't shown any enthusiasm and have so far only prosecuted one councillor in relation to interests. And the electorate seldom, if ever, remove councillors for the sort of bullying, oppressive behaviour that is corrosive to good governance and a healthy ethical culture and that is no longer tolerated in other modern workplaces. Throughout the world there's a growing attraction to the politicians who ride rough shod in cutting through the bureaucracy to get things done.

Indeed, some of that energy is built into the design brief of the monocratic Police and Crime Commissioner role and the wide area elected mayors, both of whom are being left deliberately uncluttered by the rules and checks and balances that are seen to get in the way of fast decisions and rapid action.

At the same time the safeguards have been reduced for the important “trinity” of Head of Paid Service, Monitoring Officer and Chief Financial Officer. Resources and capacity have been reduced in key corporate services such as legal, and there’s a rising turnover in Monitoring Officers and legal staff.

Transparency has been shown to be important but to have limits. Simply putting out data and documents does not develop trust, as opposed to information and commentary that encourages public dialogue but that in turn requires time, effort and cost.

All this comes at a time when legal staff increasingly need to develop new and uncharted partnerships and procurements with a range of partners and bodies. Many of these have different models of accountability and a wide range of motives. Though overall accountability may be unclear the buck still stops with the council.

But I see that a real opportunity - mayors and councils do continue to have a democratic mandate and thus do have a unique legitimacy to hold the ring. So let’s hold on to and celebrate the strong constants that still exist within and for local government.

Public trust in councillors has over many years remained relatively high – 43% in 2016, compared to 22% for ministers and to only 37% for local government managers. (MORI).

73% of respondents in 2014 (LGA) trust their local council more than government to make decisions about local services. Public satisfaction with how councils run things remained broadly constant at 68%.

Research by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) shows the public expect the same high standards in public services; whether provided by public or private providers. The Committee’s research also shows that the public still strongly identifies with the Nolan Principles – they might use different words, as now reflected in the descriptors - but their expectations of public servants remain constant.

The ethos of service still lives on. Young millennials want to work for employers who enshrine values and ethics in their business model. 62% want to work for companies with a positive impact. 50% prefer purposeful work to a high salary and 53% are prepared to work harder if making a difference to others. (Global Tolerance survey). Many companies would love their brand to have a set of core ethical values as ingrained as those in Local Government.

But to maintain high standards, ethical codes need to be communicated in simply understood language and constantly reinforced to make sure that all

staff are aware of their own responsibilities under the code and feel able to seek advice and guidance or raise a concern if things appear to be going wrong.

Which now brings me to my final points on Challenges and Suggestions – first to officers as local leaders, and second as a professional voice for the sector at national level. I offer these constructively and in the spirit of a critical friend.

Responses to standards issues usually come too late and only in response to scandals that have done damage. The Poulson corruption case in the 1970s is the textbook example. Soit’s vital to stay vigilant and alive to conduct risks.

Politics is a competition for power and money flows to power like water down a hill. The opportunities for the abuse of power are always considerable. New situations continually arise and pose new standards issues. Examples include the inflow of international money – clean or unclean – into redevelopment and property investment, the aggressive marketing of some sections of the outsourcing market. Ethical drift is a constant danger.

This shows the importance of maintaining focus on the preventative side of standards – especially in drawing up new constitutions and partnership governance arrangements. Try to “hardwire” transparency and accountability in at the design stage and not as a bolt-on when it's too late.

As the Acting Chief Executive of the Financial Conduct Authority said last December: “the risks arising from misconduct are one of the largest contingent risks on a firm’s balance sheet. It rarely matures, can't be sold or hedged. Any other risk this large with these characteristics would be managed and mitigated within an inch of its life. Yet stick the word ‘conduct’ in front of it and suddenly it's not.”

There is undoubtedly a problem of the limited remedies at Councils’ disposal to deal with poor member behaviour, whether in a principal council or in a dysfunctional parish. This is corrosive to culture and performance and can cause a disturbing loss of public confidence. Sadly I've no magic bullet. And I don’t see cavalry on the horizon, so I don't see any rapid return to the enforcement mechanisms of the Audit Commission or Standards for England – or anything like them, or any time soon.

But Monitoring Officers can assist review bodies such as the Communities and Local Government Committee of Parliament and the CSPL by establishing a stock-take with robust data. Are there widespread problems with key standards areas such as not declaring interests, bullying, independent persons procedures, parish councils etc? If so, what's the scale and how costly is the impact? Is the lack of proper sanctions leading to examples of flagrant and recidivist behaviour by some councillors? How many and what are examples? What measures have proved successful and could be made general?

Without such data no one can be persuaded that there's any need to review or revise the present legislation. And of course with no central bodies any more there’s nobody to collect that evidence except officers themselves, so if there are problems they need to make their voice heard. As Bertie Wooster would say, if there are beans, spill them. With robust data these committees might consider that the time is ripe to schedule a review, especially as both have recognised the need for a watching brief on what is still relatively new legislation.

Alongside this it’s time to initiate a review of the Monitoring Officer role in today’s local government. I recall its creation in the 1980’s to rein in so-called “loony councils’. In the 2000 Act was added managing the then standards regime. As a result Monitoring Officers were - usually unfairly -criticised for fettering democracy and over-zealously enforcing a standards regime that the Prime Minister said was ‘getting in the way’. The Monitoring Officer’s role has never had the status and support that a company secretary or compliance officer gets in the private sector. So what is its role today and how should it operate to support probity across the bailiwicks of the new regional mayors?

I believe as well that The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, Lawyers in Local Government and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy should look again at how all three top roles fit together nowadays and can and should mutually reinforce each other. They should also give substance to the commitment stated in the 2012 joint SOLACE/CIPFA document Delivering Good Governance which says: It puts high standards of conduct and leadership at the heart of good governance, placing responsibility on members and officers to demonstrate leadership by behaving in ways that exemplify high standards of conduct, and so set the tone for the rest of the organisation.

And, similarly, at national level, I urge all local government senior officers to do more to promote and embed their own Senior Managers’ Code of Ethics. It's a welcome development, but it's only the easiest and the first very tentative step on the long journey to an effective standards culture.

It's not been widely promulgated - it's not that easy even to find. At best it has had but passive acceptance at senior level, I suggest, and is not alive in daily office life.

Also, where is its bite? How and where is it impacting on your professional behaviour and that of your staff? Indeed, why is only addressed to senior managers in top down language and not more inclusively to all staff – in the way that the Policing Code of Ethics is being systematically communicated to the whole team through practical examples and whole team briefings using video clips and case studies.

Ever since the first Nolan report in 1995 the CSPL has emphasised that for Codes to be effective they have to be seen as relevant to every day working life, not exceptions. Writing Codes or ticking boxes don't by themselves promote good behaviour. Some of the best written Codes were to be found in the banks before their troubles showed they were not being lived out. The standards expected by any Code need to be solidly embedded throughout the organisation and reflected in governance procedures and in appraisal and incentive mechanisms.

Putting this into practice one Police Force’s Leadership Team regularly ask themselves three simple questions about how well they are operationalising the Policing Code of Ethics:

1 Is my decision in line with the principles and expected behaviour?

2 Will I be comfortable explaining my decision to me managers, peers and the public?

3 Will my decision bring discredit to me and my Service?

I suggest that if the local government officers’ code were more visibly led and more visibly lived out in daily operations it could strengthen the case for complementary revisions to the Members’ Code. Unfortunately both the officer code and the member code feel to me primarily procedural in nature, nowhere actively championed and everywhere peripheral to the daily business of councils in any tier.


In conclusion, living out the Nolan Principles is a continuing challenge in any organisation. .

Leadership is the overarching Nolan Principle and the most demanding. Failures of leadership are at the heart of almost all the recent scandals in the NHS, care sector, policing, publicly quoted companies and national charities.

And as the Institute of Business Ethics express it for each and every one of us as managers:

Leaders need to understand, use, monitor, regularly re-evaluate and, most importantly, exemplify Codes through their behaviour”.

As professionals we all have roles as leaders and thought leaders, individually and collectively for a sector that is vital to people’s life quality and life chances in a democratic society.

All of us in public life need to be aware of our ethical responsibilities and be prepared to speak out and act as ethical leaders. The public expects nothing less.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by parish Cllr terence Moderate posted on

    We have a parish ,and County Councillor who has taken part in debates about playing field ,fee increases,and voted with the majority to increase them.
    Then user members of the public have informed our Chair of council that this Councillor has told them he will have their fees reduced.
    This is surely a breach of ethical code, hoping he will increase his political chances.