Much has changed since Lord Nolan first enunciated the seven principles in 1995, thinking that he was doing no more than capturing the main elements of a public sector ethos of much longer heritage. But I am struck by how much similarity there is in one respect between now and then: they’re both periods of great change in public service delivery.
Back then it was privatisation, outsourcing and executive agencies. Now it is clinical commissioning groups, academies, elected police and crime commissioners, and private or voluntary sector involvement in an increasing range of services. The new approaches to delivery present opportunities for greater efficiency, effectiveness and responsiveness to local needs. But they also present new challenges and new risks to the standards we expect to apply.
There is no reason to think that those involved in the new approaches will behave any worse or better than more traditional public servants. But many may not previously have been involved in the delivery of public services, paid for with public money, to individuals who may not have the choice of going elsewhere. Those who do have public service backgrounds may find themselves in very different roles, facing a new set of incentives and constraints.
These circumstances place particular responsibility on those who are setting up new approaches or commissioning new services to think through how to ensure that high standards of ethical behaviour are built in from the start. Ethical risks need to be mitigated appropriately and proportionately, and contractors need to understand the essential values which should underpin public service delivery.
This places particular pressure on procurement. A number of major private sector companies involved in bidding for contracts across a wide range of services told my committee during our latest review that they were keen to maintain high standards, not least because of the potential effect on their reputation and bottom line if things went wrong. But they have many other pressures upon them.
Understandably, in current economic circumstances the civil service is under pressure to deliver more with less. But the cost to the public sector of failing to address ethics at the outset of any new arrangements could be very high, both financially and in terms of outcomes and public confidence. ?
‘Standards matter: a review of best practice in promoting good behaviour in public life’, by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, is at www.public-standards.org.uk