Perm secs urged to embed 'robust ethical culture' in departments

“The ethical health of an organisation cannot be left to chance,” Committee on Standards in Public Life warns

Government’s independent standards body has urged permanent secretaries to embed a “robust ethical culture” in their departments, as it published a report warning that “it often takes a crisis for senior leaders to prioritise action in this area”.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s latest report said government leaders must not to be “complacent” about upholding standards, warning that “the ethical health of an organisation cannot be left to chance”.

It urged perm secs to “set the tone for their organisation” by communicating ethical standards clearly and consistently to their organisations, and to show “zero tolerance of poor behaviour exhibited by other leaders”.

The report was published the same week as two rows gathered steam in Westminster: one over former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs; and another over the appointment process for BBC chair Richard Sharp, who was reportedly involved in discussions about helping to secure a loan for then-prime minister Boris Johnson in 2020.

In today's report, the committee acknowledged the “complex dynamic” of leadership in government departments, with both elected ministers and the civil service playing an important role.

And it added that “fast-paced operational environments with limited resources… can be particularly challenging for maintaining high ethical standards”.

“In times of crisis, it is crucial that the underpinning principle to act always in the public interest is maintained, and any decisions to shortcut normal processes are clearly explained and open to scrutiny.”

Writing in the report’s forward, committee chair Jonathan Evans said the Seven Principles of Public Life – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership – are the “bedrock that underpins and gives meaning to the rules that govern public office”. But the ethical values reflected in the principles, which were set out by then-chair Lord Nolan in 1995, “will not become the cultural norm within an organisation without active attention”, he said.

To encourage this attention, Lord Evans has written to perm secs setting out 20 questions they should ask to determine how their organisations could better uphold the principles.

The questions aim to “take the pulse” of public sector bodies across five areas: communicating values and leading by example; encouraging a “speak up” culture; training, discussion and decision making; governance; and recruitment and performance management.

They address staff’s familiarity with and understanding of the principles; how behaviours are communicated and addressed; how concerns and whistleblowing are treated; and how a strong ethical culture is maintained.

They include: “How do you know that people across your organisation are hearing a consistent tone from their managers in relation to the standards of behaviour expected of them?”; “Are there clear and well-understood ways that people across your organisation can raise their concerns when things ‘just don’t feel right’?”; and “Does your risk assessment process identify and monitor the key ethical risks for your organisation?”.

In his letter, Evans wrote: “I recognise that the demands on you as public sector leaders are numerous and diverse. You are leading government departments and public bodies that are grappling with complex challenges and it must be tempting to focus on delivery above all else. But building an organisational culture where the Principles of Public Life are deeply embedded in policies and practices supports the delivery of public services.”

“Doing things in the right way and in the public interest is critical for public confidence in the bodies that operate on the public’s behalf,” he said, adding that a “robust ethical culture” supports effective risk management by enabling organisations to address concerns quickly, and that a “values-driven culture” can help to attract and retain high-quality staff.

Writing for CSW today, Evans said the evidence CSPL received from business and public sector leaders while putting its report together suggested that “having shared values and helping staff live up to them is critical to the success of every organisation”.

“An approach which focuses only on compliance is a missed opportunity. While rules and codes are important, leaders also have the opportunity to galvanise and empower the people in their organisations to aim high, tapping into the public service ethos that attracts many to a career in the public sector,” he wrote.

A government spokesperson said: “The government takes propriety and ethics in public life very seriously.

“Within departments, judgments on matters relating to ethics and standards are the responsibility of permanent secretaries, who can draw upon the expertise of the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team.”

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