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Amending the descriptor to leadership – reinforcing a culture of respect for one another

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The word 'Leadership' spelled with Scrabble Tiles

The Committee’s latest report, Upholding Standards in Public Life, considered how the institutions and processes that regulate ethical standards are meeting the challenges of today, looking at their ability to withstand current and new challenges in a world of social media, political polarisation, and greater scrutiny of public office holders’ conduct.

Read our report and recommendations.

Despite significant societal and political change, evidence gathered for the review confirmed that Lord Nolan’s Seven Principles of Public Life continue to resonate today. Selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership continue to reflect the standards the public expect of those who serve them.

However, we also reflected on the fact that many codes of conduct – including Parliament’s Behaviour Code, the Ministerial Code, and the Senedd Code of Conduct - have been amended in recent years to stress opposition to bullying and harassment and emphasise the idea of respectful behaviour.

Recognising this changing context, the Committee has decided to update the descriptor for the leadership principle to add in the need for holders of public office to treat others with respect. The descriptor:

‘Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.’

Will now read:

‘Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.’

The importance of leadership as one of the Seven Principles of Public Life was strongly emphasised by many people we spoke to for this review. Often referred to as the ‘tone from the top’, it was clear that having good role models endorsing and promoting high ethical standards matters throughout organisations, but for those in senior positions it was considered essential.

Leadership means not only demonstrating high ethical standards but also calling out poor standards where necessary.  From other recent Committee reports into Local Government Ethical Standards and Intimidation in Public Life, we know that mutual respect exemplified in courteous behaviour must be the bedrock of political debate and public policy. Our latest review highlighted that a lack of respect for different opinions and points of view continues to hamper progress in developing a public culture which values high ethical standards and embraces the Seven Principles of Public Life. Our intention in amending the leadership principle is to challenge and foster a more constructive approach.

Leadership, in the Committee’s view, implicitly includes respect for one another. However, against a backdrop of increasing intimidation and abuse, along with the greater awareness of issues of harassment and bullying, the Committee has come to the view that this should be made explicit in the descriptor. So too should it be explicit that all public office holders have a direct responsibility to challenge poor conduct.

To be clear, the principle of leadership doesn’t only apply to Ministers, CEOs or line managers, or only relate to actions taken at board level. It applies to everyone in public office, encouraging all office holders to exemplify the Seven Principles on a day-to-day basis.

Mutual respect is essential to foster civility in the public sphere. We have a long-standing culture of robust political discussion in the UK and a healthy public scepticism. This is a good thing, and no one would want to return to an age of deference. But listening to the views of others and treating people with respect is critical to open, robust decision making in the wider public interest.

We will be updating the descriptor of the leadership principle to reinforce the expectation of respect for one another.

The Seven Principles of Public Life

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Jag Patel posted on

    If leadership means not only demonstrating high ethical standards but also calling out poor standards, then there is a distinct lack of it at the Ministry of Defence.

    Consider the evidence.

    To spread prosperity & opportunity around, it is the policy of this government to widen the participation of small and medium-sized businesses in the market in goods and services for which the government is the main customer – specifically, the government has committed itself to spending 33% of the central government procurement budget on SMEs by 2022, either directly or indirectly via its top-tier contractors. The target for the MoD, which spends about £17bn a year on procuring new military equipment, is a modest 25%.

    The clear message behind the government’s defence procurement policy is that equipment for the Armed Forces is to be purchased through fair and open competition – the only exceptions being off-the-shelf purchases and single-source development contracts, the latter to be handed out on a preferential basis (to the Select Few).

    Indeed, in its most recent policy statement on defence procurement expressed in the Defence Industrial Policy* published in December 2017, the government says (on page 23):

    “We strive to provide our Armed Forces with the capabilities they need at the best value for money, obtaining this through open competition in the global market, wherever possible. Competitive tension is the greatest driver for innovation, productivity and earning power in any economy.”

    Yet, in the very next sentence, the government comes clean and acknowledges that 42% of new MoD contracts by value were placed via open competition in 2016/17, down from 64% in 2010/11 – which leads one to conclude that the trend is towards more of the same.

    By handing out taxpayer-funded contracts in this way, MoD has shown leadership and set an example by inadvertently directing prime contractors to adopt the same method of hand picking their first-tier supply chain partners, for each dissected workshare part of their evolving technical solutions.

    But unlike MoD, which has been disbursing such contracts on national security grounds, prime contractors have been using the tried-and-tested old boys’ network to choose their first-tier subcontractors, usually during a gathering at the 19th Hole limited to the great-and-the-good from subsidiary companies wholly-owned by the prime contractor, or some other favoured, old school-tie chums – which has allowed corrupt activities, characterised by artificially inflated subcontract prices and the obligatory kickbacks that go with them to flourish. It is the stupid act of disclosing the budgeted expenditure figure in the invitation to tender that has given prime contractors the opportunity to “divvy up” this money in the same way as they dissected the technical solution into its workshare parts, thereby offering leeway for discretionary payments.

    By its very nature, this type of clandestine activity in the defence industrial supply chain is very difficult to unearth, because the extremely small number of people right at the top who benefit from it will go out of their way to keep it under wraps, citing the excuse of commercial confidentiality whilst skilfully covering their tracks.

    It is truly a bizarre situation, where the buyer tells the seller (confidentially) the price level at which he should pitch at, so that they can both profit. A scenario which can only occur on government-funded contracts!

    It is therefore entirely understandable why the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings referred to defence contractors as “corporate looters”. In the now famous blogpost published in 2019, he says:

    “Regardless of elections, the farce has continued to squander billions of pounds, enriching some of the worst corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving door of officials/lobbyists.”

    But what is especially disturbing about this epic story of bribery and corruption is that, it is instigated and perpetuated by people who were previously in the pay of the State – given that the workforce on defence contractors’ premises, large or small, is made-up entirely of former public servants who came across in overwhelming numbers, via the “revolving door” to pursue a second career in the private sector.

    Whatever happened to the much-vaunted principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership which was supposed to define these people?

    What’s more, MoD’s green lighting of this practice has prompted first-tier subcontractors to also select their lower-tier suppliers in the same manner, paving the way for the entire defence industrial supply chain to be corrupted, right down to the lowest level of piece-part & component manufacturers.

    But the real tragedy about this whole sorry saga is that agile and innovative engineering businesses from adjacent sectors, who have not previously engaged with MoD, have been shut-out from the opportunity to act as subcontractors to these defence prime contractors, which would explain why it has failed so miserably to comply with the government’s own policy of spreading prosperity & opportunity around, by increasing the proportion of MoD spend with small and medium-sized enterprises to 25% by 2020. The actual figure for financial year 2018/2019 was 19.3%.

    Additionally, not using the market-based instrument of fair and open competition to select first-tier subcontractors has the effect of protecting these defence SMEs from being exposed to the full rigours of the free market, that is to say, shielding them from “feeling the heat” of competitive market forces, which has in turn, led to them becoming notoriously inefficient, because they are simply being gifted a steady stream of uncontested subcontracts which they expect to receive in perpetuity – cultivating an dependency culture.

    It is a mystery why the government would want to tolerate this sort of criminal behaviour on taxpayer-funded contracts, given the intense focus of attention on the dubious habits of the private sector right now, and the uncertainty surrounding the continuance of free market capitalism in its present form in the UK.

    * Defence Industrial Policy document entitled “Industry for Defence and a Prosperous Britain: Refreshing Defence Industrial Policy”, published by UK Ministry of Defence, December 2017, PDF file (1.28 MB)