Whitehall’s new integrity champion must avoid corporate pap – and involve all civil servants in his mission

Following Jonathan Slater's "call to arms" on civil service integrity, the IfG's Daniel Thornton explains how to improve and what to avoid

Amongst Volkswagen’s values can be found “responsibility”, which didn’t stop employees designing software to cheat diesel-exhaust tests. Credit: Frank May/PA

By Daniel Thornton

19 Mar 2018

Integrity is one of the “core values” in the civil-service code. But in the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index (InCiSE), the UK scores barely above average. The leadership of the civil service has noticed – and Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, has volunteered to be a new integrity champion.

To succeed, Jonathan will need to avoid the usual top-down corporate pap associated with “values programmes”. Instead, he must create opportunities for civil servants to look honestly at the behaviour that calls integrity into question.


Most large organisations have statements of values. In addition to being written in incomprehensible management jargon, there is sometimes a laughably large gap between these values and reality. I used to work for Enron, which collapsed in 2001 following massive fraud, and whose values (inevitably) included, “Integrity: we work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely”.

Amongst Volkswagen’s many values can be found “respect”, “responsibility” and acting “in accordance with our declarations” –  which didn’t stop employees designing software to cheat diesel-exhaust tests. Despite these examples, organisations repeatedly produce new statements – Yahoo is reported to have had 23 in 21 years.

The civil service is better off than many organisations. This is because its values have been in place for a long time, and are supported by some important procedures.

First, since the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms in the 1850s civil servants are appointed by merit through open competition, which limits the scope for appointing friends and family to public positions. Second, in addition to their usual whistleblowing rights, civil servants can appeal against breaches of the civil-service code to the civil-service commissioners. Third, transparency requirements make it harder to fiddle expenses, or contracts or appointments – even if the system isn’t as open as it should be.

When I advise the civil service on how to improve the way they work, I argue that the values celebrated by the civil-service code – integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality – work pretty well. The civil service should avoid employing expensive consultants to devise new ones. Values that feel imposed from above, particularly when accompanied by a “change programme” that involves people losing their jobs, are more likely to provoke sarcasm than improvements.   

But this does not mean that the civil service should relax. Abstractions like “integrity” need to be constantly reinforced – and reinterpreted to have new meaning in new circumstances. Exhortation to improve does very little, while mistakes like the appointment of Toby Young reverberate and are remembered.

The Institute for Government produced InCiSE jointly with the Blavatnik School of Government.  Overall the UK civil service came fourth in the country rankings – the score on integrity was well below this, with the UK coming 17th. The UK is dragged down by poor scores from an expert survey on fair treatment of groups by public officials, the extent to which officials implement policy impartially, and the degree to which whistle-blowers are protected.

It is good that InCiSE is provoking a discussion and the poor scores should give Jonathan some ideas on where he should focus his efforts. But most important will be the way that changes are made.

Integrity needs to be demonstrated by everyone from the top to the bottom of the organisation, and this means involving people from a range of roles outside the usual management chain in discussions; it means doing things that the organisation cares about with integrity, rather than having a separate “values programme”; and it means giving people the chance to speak honestly. This will make “integrity” meaningful for today’s civil service, and give citizens the public service they deserve.

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