Sir David Normington: Got a question for the Civil Service Commission?

As first civil service commissioner, it’s Sir David Normington’s job to ensure civil servants are appointed on merit — but the commission also tries to ensure that the values of honesty, impartiality, integrity and objectivity are upheld. And, as Normington writes, those values are one of the civil service’s major selling points

By Sir David Normington

01 Dec 2015

Many civil servants will be aware of the commission’s role in recruitment – providing independent assurance of appointment on merit after a fair and open competition - but the commission has a second, equally important role in promoting the civil service code and hearing appeals from civil servants.

The values set out in the civil service code  - honesty, impartiality, integrity and objectivity - are a fundamental part of our constitutional DNA. They are the civil service’s contract with the successive governments they serve and define the standards of behaviour the public expect. 

I was particularly pleased to see that the latest figures in the 2015 People survey showed record high levels of awareness of the code – up another point to 90%. Despite sounding like it dates back to Northcote-Trevelyan, the code was actually only formalised in 1996. It came into being after a number of high profile cases where it was felt that civil servants had been put under pressure to act improperly. 

The code and the four civil service values - honesty, impartiality, integrity and objectivity – then became statutory under the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance legislation. In having a written code setting out values and expectations of its staff, the civil service was ahead of its time. Many businesses, banks and the police are all now seeing the importance of a code of professional ethics.

I really believe that the civil service could make more of its core values as a major selling point for new recruits. A recent survey by Global Tolerance showed young ‘millenials’ want to work for employers who enshrine values and ethics in their business model. 62% said they want to work for a company that makes a positive impact. 50% said they prefer purposeful work to a high salary. And 53% said they would work harder if they were making a difference to others. Many companies would like their brand to have a set of core ethical values as ingrained as those which set out how civil servants carry out their work.

But to maintain high standards, ethical codes need constant reinforcing to make sure that all staff are aware of the responsibilities under the code and feel able to seek advice and guidance or raise a concern if things appear to be going wrong.

The commission - which I chair - works with departments to ensure that all staff are made aware of the code and how they can raise a concern if they feel that the code is being breached. We test our success in the People Survey each year. It shows there is still work to do – 66% of staff say they know how to raise a concern in their organisation and 68% are confident it would be investigated properly.

We recently brought together 43 nominated officers from across the civil service for a networking event to share their experiences and discuss their role in greater detail. If you haven’t already heard of them, nominated officers are appointed by departments to advise staff on interpretation of the code and how to take a concern forward – either through the department’s procedures or to the commission. Concerns are commonly resolved in the management line, but the nominated officers are important in making sure staff can approach someone outside the management line whom they can approach in confidence.

This can be tricky stuff — for example, where a civil servant thinks a colleague may have misled ministers, or has allowed a minister to mislead parliament. Or where rules are not being followed in procurement. Or when a civil servant is commenting, in a personal capacity, on social media about aspects of the policy on which she is working.

Many of these sorts of questions can be worked through by the department with advice from the propriety and ethics policy team, at the Cabinet Office. In the majority of cases, it is better that concerns are dealt with within the department in which they arise. If a department can address and resolve concerns itself then it can learn from the process. 

But if a civil servant’s concern cannot be reasonably resolved within the department, he/she can come to us at the independent commission. There may also be circumstances in which the commission would take a complaint directly. Our role, however, relates exclusively to concerns under the code. We can’t consider personnel management grievances, disagreements about the merits of policy or disagreements about management decisions.

If you have a question or a comment, the Civil Service Commission is holding an online open week about its work from 7 - 11 December. Our eleven commissioners will be taking it in turns to be available throughout the week to take questions or hear your thoughts on the commission’s work in upholding the values set out in the civil service code, and also in providing assurance that recruitment to the Civil Service is made on merit after fair and open competition. We hope that members of the public and civil servants join in, find out more about what we do, and tell us what they think.

If you would like to contact the Commission as part of Open Week you can e-mail us at or send us a question or comment via the Commission’s Twitter account @CivServComm. Questions and answers will be posted on our dedicated Open Week Page throughout the week on our website.

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