With its remit across public life, the Committee is maintaining a close watch on standards issues arising as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Recognising the unique and unprecedented nature of the challenge for the public sector, continuing to uphold the Seven Principles of Public Life is vital to maintaining trust in government and our institutions throughout this crisis. In a series of blogs, the Committee will discuss the relevance of these principles to the current crisis. We are not considering the government’s practical response to the crisis, e.g. the availability of PPE or length of lockdown, but rather monitoring any impact on standards and the Nolan Principles.
In this blog, independent member of the Committee, Dame Shirley Pearce, discusses the value of leadership during the coronavirus crisis.
The Nolan Principle of Leadership says that holders of public office should exhibit the Principles of Honesty, Openness, Integrity, Selflessness, Objectivity, Accountability and Leadership in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the Principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
The unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 pandemic demands strong and ethically informed leadership at every level of society. Decisions have had to be made about the best response to this new virus without the detailed knowledge needed to be confident about making the right decisions. So, the Principles are even more important than usual to help guide decision makers. We have seen much to commend across the leaders of the public sector, which as a whole, has responded with characteristic determination and commitment to this crisis.
But leadership is not something that is restricted to the senior members of an organisation or society. It is not something we expect just of those at the top. Leadership happens, even if we are not aware of it, at every level of an organisation. This has never been more necessary in determining the success of the country’s response to the pandemic.
It is obvious that what each of us does influences the behaviour of those around us - our friends, family and colleagues. Whilst the Nolan Principles apply to those holding public office or providing services to the public, this crisis demonstrates how the behaviour of members of the public can influence the well-being of us all. As citizens and members of society we have responsibilities to each other – and people’s sense of those wider responsibilities has been much in evidence, in volunteering, running food banks, observing lock down etc. Although not articulated, citizens do, it seems, implicitly acknowledge the value of the Principles - that they owe some degree of selflessness, that they ought to show some integrity, and that they are rightly held to account if they do not do as they are asked or required. That sense of civic responsibility connects the private individual to the Principles of Public Life.
The requirement for changed behaviour to reduce transmission of the virus in this pandemic has led to major changes in lifestyle for us all. The effectiveness of our response to the government’s demands for social distancing has been affected not just by the quality of the government’s messaging but also by the behaviour of those we respect around us. Local leaders and family figures across the land have interpreted the instructions and encouraged appropriate behaviours. And the power of our combined actions has led to a reduction in the destruction of the virus, at least for the moment.
High profile examples of failure to show leadership in the delivery of the Principles have been damaging. The national concern at gaps in leadership shows how much we expect the principles to be delivered by all. It is in a context when we have seen powerful displays of leadership by frontline staff, many in low income brackets, who have continued to deliver their roles for the benefit of society while exposing themselves to personal risk. Not just NHS and care workers but also bus drivers, train operatives, food manufacturers, hand wash distillers and people delivering so many other roles that cannot be delivered in the relative comfort of home working. This leadership by members of the community is a crucial part of our social glue. It commands our respect but it needs to be integrated across the community. People on the front line need the respect of the individuals and families with whom they work, they need to be looked out for by those above them, and they in turn need to have the support and commitment of those in the political system. The public’s own sense of commitment and civic responsibility is going to be sorely tried on the route back to normality given the economic and employment problems people will undoubtedly face. It is likely to be conditional on us all seeing strong leadership which meets the Nolan Principles and feeling that our sacrifices and hardships are acknowledged and shared across the system.
Leadership is something we all need to be thinking about. No one says it is easy and there are often tricky ethical dilemmas in decision making with limited resources and high impact consequences. Leadership is not about getting everything right all the time; no one can expect that in these times. But as a nation we must be confident that our public sector leaders are considering these ethical challenges in the light of the Principles that have been the baseline of public service delivery for many years.