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Standards Commission for Scotland: Honesty and Trust

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The Standards Commission for Scotland is an independent public body, responsible for encouraging high standards of behaviour by local government councillors and those appointed to the boards of devolved public bodies. Its role is to strengthen ethical standards in public life; including promoting the Codes of Conduct and issuing guidance to councils and devolved public bodies; and to adjudicate on alleged breaches of the Codes of Conduct, and where a breach is found, to apply a sanction.

The word 'honesty' spelled with scrabble tiles

It’s fair to say there has been a great deal of press coverage recently about the honesty of our leaders.  The conduct of politicians and others in public life is under intense scrutiny, with many questions asked of their integrity.

Of course, putting a “spin” on matters is seen as part and parcel of politics. There is, however, a difference between highlighting issues or facts to suit your argument (or omitting to talk about ones that don’t) and deliberately and knowingly misleading the public.

One of the key principles of public life (commonly known as the ‘Nolan principles’) is honesty. It is a short and simple principle, merely stating that “holders of public office should be truthful”.

There is often a feeling amongst many members of the public that politicians exaggerate, dissemble and even lie, which can lead, at best, to indifference and at worst an expectation of dishonesty.

So - where is the harm if members of the public generally understand and accept that politicians or others in public life may not always be truthful?

The answer relates to trust. A lack of trust in those in public life does not just affect the reputation of any one individual; it can also erode confidence in public messaging, public bodies and the delivery of public services. Guarding against such an erosion of confidence is especially important during a pandemic or in other times of crisis.

Recent polling paints a stark picture – 63% of the public believe that politicians are mainly in politics for themselves [1]. The polls show a steady decline in public trust over the last 77 years – the question was first posed in 1944 – with only 5% of those polled believing our elected officials are in it for the country’s best interests.

A loss of trust and confidence in elected officials, and consequently in their messaging, can lead to the spread of misinformation with some people even turning to conspiracy theories. In turn, that can lead to those trying to debunk such theories and ensure prominence of the facts often having to face abuse and mistrust.  As has been noted in the press, mistrust can also affect adherence to the guidelines and rules. If members of the public don’t trust the reasons given for such rules, they are less likely to follow them.

So not only is it important that politicians and others in public life are honest, but also that they demonstrate another Nolan principle - that of leadership. The leadership principle asks that holders of public office should exhibit all of the key principles in their own behaviour, and take an active part in promoting them and in challenging poor behaviour where it occurs.

“Tone from the top” is a good way to encapsulate this principle – if we have good role models endorsing and promoting high ethical standards in the upper echelons of public life, it is more likely that those high standards will be replicated by those below them.

If all those in public life acted with honesty, and embodied the principle of leadership by promoting honesty and challenging falsehoods where they arise, we might see a corresponding increase in public confidence and trust in our elected officials.



Find out more about the work of Committee on Standards in Public Life.

This blog was first published by the Standards Commission for Scotland and is republished with permission.

[1] IPPR paper, Trust issues: dealing with distrust in politics, 5 December 2021

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  1. Comment by Andrew Turvey posted on

    A case well made, but falls rather short on substance. If I buy 100g bag of potatoes from a supermarket I trust ghat I won't get home and find myself shortchanged with only 90g. That's not because supermarkets are inherently trustworthy - its because we've had literally hundreds of years of trading laws which have been meaningfully enforced and are now reflected in robust systems.

    The issue is not that the population doesn't trust politicians, its that they aren't trustworthy.

    The issue isn't that politicians lie - it's that there's no meaningful consequence for those who do.

    Let election courts overturn the election of candidates found to have lied during their election. Let voters recall MPs who break their campaign pledges.

    Let there be meaningful sanctions. Then we might start trusting politicians a bit more.

  2. Comment by Jag Patel posted on

    Honesty is not a virtue that comes naturally to the governing elite who have, in the latter part of the last century, evolved innovative methods of communication which alienates its members from the voters they are supposed to represent.

    In a well-functioning democracy, the government has a moral duty to be open and honest with citizens about its policy positions. However, in an age of media-driven government, tensions have become acute between the governing elite’s need to get their message across to citizens, and the civil service’s obligation to compile factually-based government pronouncements.

    However, it is nigh on impossible to separate out the true facts from such policy pronouncements because they are framed in language which propagates half-truths and sometimes, downright lies – with the deliberate intention of deceiving. Even more worryingly, press releases which are the primary source of information for the press and media about what government is doing are crafted in such a way as to, in effect, say “look here, not there” thereby focusing their attention exactly where government wants them to, away from areas it would rather were not examined.

    One of the reasons for this modus operandi is that government is preoccupied with presentation, manipulation of words and the dark art of spinning – instead of working on its programme of reform to deliver public services efficiently, to satisfy the wants, needs and expectations of the electorate.

    The political imperative of needing to put a positive slant on everything the government does or will do, irrespective of whether it is true or not, is the reason why spin – manipulating or embellishing the truth – has become the centrepiece of this government’s communications strategy. And because government has got a monopoly on inside information (enabling it to maintain extremely tight control), it uses spin to divert attention away from the key issues that really matter to citizens and consequently, succeeds in suppressing alternative views and criticism from those on the outside, including Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

    Conventional wisdom has it that Ministers shape high-level policy and select from policy options developed by special advisers and mandarins, whilst it is the job of senior civil servants to define lower-level policy detail underneath, so that it can be used by the rest of the civil service to implement the policy of the government. However, the eagerness with which senior civil servants have complied with their political masters’ desire to see policy announcements framed around presentation and spin, at the expense of substance, would explain why their skills set has been narrowed down to this single, dark art.

    It would also explain why the civil service has failed to deliver against promises made by the governing elite, in their election manifestos. This failure has been brought about by the erosion and downgrading of traditional specialist disciplines in the civil service like technical, commercial and project execution & delivery – skills which are absolutely essential to the delivery of public services in today’s world.

    What’s more, this intense focus of attention on presentation alone has resulted in a massive gap opening up between the leadership and lower ranks of the civil service, who have to deal with the reality of delivering public services on the ground, on a day-to-day basis, which has in itself led to alienation and disaffection.