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Accountability cuts both ways

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Accountability, Ethics in practice

Since joining the Committee in September, one of the things that strikes me is how often the Committee is asked to comment on negative media stories or individual instances of poor behaviour by a public office holder.

As someone who spent a career in the health service and local government, I care passionately about upholding the Nolan principles and encouraging the highest standards of conduct across public life. Without doubt poor conduct need to be called out – and properly handled by the organisation itself or the appropriate regulator.

The origins and operation of the ethics regulators have been the subject of many Committee’s reports, but the Committee itself is not a regulator. The Committee’s remit is to monitor, review and report; indeed the then Prime Minister, John Major, said it should ‘act as a running authority of reference - almost, you might say, an ethical workshop called in to do running repairs’. In short, but by no means a short order, the Committee’s role is to promote the highest standards of conduct in public life. The accepted - and regularly tested - standards being the seven Nolan principles of honesty, integrity, selflessness, accountability, objectivity, leadership and openness.

These are tough times across all our public services. The current financial climate means public servants from ministers to local government, police and NHS staff are having to take very difficult and sometimes deeply unpopular decisions. How they are seen to make those decisions is incredibly important. This is where the seven principles matter most. For example, making the decision to close a local police station or move an NHS service requires open, objective and honest explanation even if it won’t make you popular.

But I’ve been struck by a number of instances lately where public servants have been under real attack for ‘doing their day job’ in line with those expected standards. It seems to me that there is a level of confusion about what accountability and leadership mean in practice and that senior public office holders could do more to demonstrate leadership here.

Ethical leadership involves standing up for those who are formally under your remit when they are attacked and where their hands are tied in responding to those attacks. Do we really want judges, social workers and civil servants writing to newspapers to defend themselves? Our system works on the assumption that they are there to perform an official function; when they fall short they should be dealt with by their superiors - and in the case of the highest office holders this will mean that they are answerable to people who are politically elected and appointed. Those people have a responsibility to ensure that those formally beneath them are doing what they should be doing - but they also have a responsibility to shield them from certain forms of political and public attacks.

Scrutiny is a critical feature of accountability. But as well as robustly rooting out poor conduct, we need to encourage leaders to robustly support those who are carrying out challenging public service roles too. To quote John Major (back in 1994) once again:

'The freedom to comment, to attack, to condemn, to expose public institutions and public figures, is very great. In a free society such as ours it is very important. But such power should only be used with responsibility. Most people in public life are there because they want to do something for others. What we must be concerned about is that their motives are not so denigrated; that they are not so unreasonably subjected to scrutiny and pressure that their successors will not come forward. We must ensure that we do not reach a situation where people are not prepared to serve the public good because the price of doing so is so high.'


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