The permanent secretary of the Department for Education has issued a call to arms to redouble efforts to improve civil service integrity after a ranking placed Whitehall in the middle of the international pack for integrity.
In an article published on the civil service blog, Jonathan Slater set out what he called “three reminders” of how to ensure integrity is maintained in everything Whitehall does.
He said he had spoken to other permanent secretaries about civil service integrity before Christmas, following the publication of the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index 2017, which rated the UK 17th of 31 countries for integrity. The ranking is based on corruption perceptions, adherence to rules and procedures, work ethics, fairness and impartiality.
Although the overall InCise rating ranked the UK civil service 4th overall of the countries analysed for civil service effectiveness, Slater said he was “puzzled” by the integrity ranking and said he had volunteered to become the civil service integrity champion.
Slater said he has “never met a civil servant who doesn't think integrity is important”, and added: “I'm not completely convinced that the scoring is a fair reflection of current reality.”
However, he added three reminders to his civil service colleagues intended to maintain integrity, covering public appointments, support for ministers and public accountability.
He said that recent interest in public appointments, such as the proposed appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students before Young withdrew, served as a reminder that public appointees must uphold the same standards in public life that are expected of civil servants.
“I would encourage everyone to familiarise themselves with the guidance on public appointments, together with the Nolan Principles,” Slater highlighted.
He also highlighted the work DfE had done to welcome new ministers, headed by a new secretary of state Damian Hinds, after the Cabinet reshuffle earlier this year.
“Of course, we civil servants are well-versed in pulling together welcome packs and departmental briefings for any new minister at any time,” he said. “However, our support goes well beyond carefully crafted briefing notes. What ministers want and need from us are honest opinions about the issues at stake, what underlies those issues, what the delivery challenges are, and what everyone ‘out there’ thinks about them. Ministers can’t make good decisions without that advice, even when it may be thought unpalatable.”
The third area of integrity was public accountability. Slater highlighted he had made nine appearances before the Public Accounts Committee since taking up post in April 2016, and said he had “come to relish the meetings”.
“Of course, it is not always pleasurable to be grilled by the committee’s finest minds, and it can be embarrassing to explain a mistake or omission,” he said. “But what makes it a good process is that it is exactly right that my decisions as accounting officer for an organisation which gives out over £60bn of public funding each year should be investigated and challenged, in public, by those who the public elects to represent them.”
He called on fellow civil servants to reflect on these areas to “redouble our efforts to improve the civil service's integrity, both collectively and individually”.
He added: “Whether you are working on advice for ministers on a tricky issue, whether you are involved in making an appointment or letting a contract, or whether you are providing someone with a service, enjoy being honest and sincere, and do us all proud.”