Now that the closing date for the top job at the new National Probation Service has passed, and I wonder which of our mealy-mouthed chiefs think they're in with a chance, I find myself being encouraged to ponder the issue of ethics and standards. Rather handily the fourteenth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was published in March this year and it lists seven key principles for public life and they are as follows:-
Selflessness : Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
Integrity : Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
Objectivity : Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
Accountability : Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
Openness : Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
Honesty : Holders of public office should be truthful.
Leadership : Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
Now the above is all fine and dandy, a bit like motherhood and apple pie, but do these warm words actually count for diddly-squat? I can't help pondering how many of our current leadership would pass muster on all of them, especially having regard to issues of public good? And anyway, they don't hold any sway with the private sector that the government is so keen to see taking over our public service jobs. The authors are clearly concerned though:-
We explored our concerns about the potential risks in this area at a seminar with representatives of major companies, including Serco, G4S, Balfour Beatty and Network Rail. These companies are already delivering or bidding for a range of public services including prisons, policing, social housing, social care and hospitals. We were not surprised to be told by those present that they and many other private sector companies were keen to maintain high ethical standards, not least because of the possible threat to their reputation (and bottom line) of being judged inadequate in this respect. It is evident that many private sector organisations have established an infrastructure intended to support high ethical standards. As in the public sector, however, there remain questions about the extent to which they have genuinely developed the appropriate culture.
Well, given what we heard about G4S and Serco from Chris Grayling recently, the committee are clearly well founded in their concerns! But did we really need a committee to inform us of the bleeding obvious? Surely this will always be but one problem when a profit motive is introduced to the delivery of public services? And I'd like to point out to the august committee that there might be concerns about ethical standards in some public services, but not in the Probation Service.
The committee went on to highlight another risk:-
Our second generic concern is the potential effect on efforts to promote high ethical standards of cuts in organisational budgets resulting from the current climate of austerity. The main risk is that financial constraints may reduce management support for investment in the promotion of high ethical standards or create a temptation for organisations or individuals to cut corners. While there should be a presumption that efficiency gains in standards, as elsewhere, should be secured where possible, we must take care that the infrastructure supporting standards is not fatally undermined, nor corners cut that could undo the improvements which have been made or further damage confidence and trust. A secondary risk is that budget cuts may undermine the commitment of some individuals to public service values. We intend to continue monitoring these risks.
Meanwhile the general fall-out from Chris Grayling's recent Commons announcement continues to be felt and John Tizard, quoted on the Public Finance website, also raises the question of ethics and is someone else urging the government to push the 'pause' button:-
However, there are nonetheless some critically important general points that can be made and which need to be urgently debated. These serious allegations raise a series of questions about the fundamental ethics of some public service providers and/or their internal control systems, and corporate and personal accountabilities; about the quality and effectiveness of public sector procurement and contract management; the nature and complexity of the contractual (and in particular, the payment) arrangements; and potentially, the efficacy of outsourcing especially when there is little supply side competition.