Last year, the Committee completed its report ‘Striking the Balance: Upholding the Seven Principles of Public Life in Regulation’. Some 80 regulatory bodies occupy a unique role in public life covering a vast range of sectors and professions. The Committee’s ‘health check’ was the first time in its history that it had looked in detail at their ethical standards and expectations.
The Committee was broadly reassured by its 2016 research that, on the whole, regulators were committed to high standards in public life but also found instances where more could be done to maintain their integrity and independence. We were concerned in particular that there were uneven approaches to ‘revolving door’ and conflict of interest issues. We all wanted to make sure that the need for genuine independence - essential in most cases - did not compromise the equal needs for transparency and accountability.
Our report made a number of best practice points and recommendations for regulators and the government intended to help regulators measure their ethical standards against the very best and promote greater public trust in regulation.
Having recently finished my five-year term on the Committee, and as an ex-Regulator myself - I know only too well that high standards do not arrive simply through writing a report or producing a code. Setting the tone and culture and properly embedding ethical behaviour throughout an organisation takes active and committed leadership and constant vigilance. I was particularly keen to follow up on how the report had been used within regulatory bodies; had anything changed as a result?
One year on, we surveyed the regulators again to discover how they had responded to our report. Some appeared not yet to have given it the attention we had hoped, but I was encouraged that a number did report a renewed focus on standards:
Some told us they had considered how their practices matched up:
"The Senior Management Team has been reviewing the recommendations and working out how and where improvements could be made to ARB's governance structures where these are appropriate; where gaps occur we will work on improving our policies and practices in the relevant areas over the coming months." (Architects Registration Board)
"The report has been very useful for the NMC in ensuring that the NMC is currently embedding all of the applicable best practice recommendations. It has been a good benchmarking exercise for the NMC ... The report was also considered as part of the Council’s annual effectiveness review which on this occasion was informed by the report and best practice recommendations." (Nursing and Midwifery Council)
Others had discussed the report and its recommendations at Board level and tabled actions for the organisation as a result
"The Ofsted Board considered the Committee's report at a meeting on 14 December 2016. The Board were provided with a table of the Committee's recommendations and an assessment of how Ofsted's processes and practices fared against each. Further work is being undertaken in a number of areas as a result." (Ofsted)
"Reviewed policy on openness and transparency of Board meetings. As a result, now holding four open meetings with a stakeholder event a year. Also reviewed principles for HSE employees taking on non-executive or director comparable roles for significant organisations in safety system." (Health and Safety Executive)
"The Board discussed the best practice recommendations at its meeting on 18 January 2017 and as a consequence is developing a new Code of Conduct for staff based on its existing policies and guidance… we will be introducing training on the Board Code of Conduct into our Board members induction programme, as a result of the CSPL report." (Solicitors Regulation Authority)
"The Committee report provided a useful opportunity to check our existing systems against good practice elsewhere. In particular, we looked at the Committee on Business Appointments arrangements, as recommended by the report… The exercise was however a valuable chance to step back and consider how we operate." (Solicitors Regulation Authority)
I commend these organisations for using the report as a lever to look at their own practice. I hope that others can still find time to make sure that everything is in order. During this period, after all, events at the Bank of England demonstrated the heavy price than can be paid if ethical standards are not taken seriously enough.
The Committee’s remit of promoting high standards across public life requires it to root recommendations in the best available evidence and share what works – this is what helps to turn words into practice and codes of conduct into the high standards of behaviour that the public expect.
Richard Thomas was a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life from May 2012 to May 2017.