OECD POLICY FORUM
“Restoring Trust in Government: Addressing Risks of Influence in Public decision making”
Policy debate – “Money, Influence and the decision making process: what are the risks”
Max 10 minute speech before moderated panel discussion and audience Q&A
I have been invited to speak as Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in the United Kingdom. In this context setting discussion, I want to explain why I consider high ethical standards of public office holders is a key enabling condition for promoting fairness in public decision making and restoring trust in government.
Role of the Committee
The role of my Committee is to examine concerns about the standards of conduct of public office holders and to recommend any changes that might be required to ensure the highest standards are maintained. Earlier this year, our terms of reference were clarified so that the definition of “holder of public office” now encompasses all those involved in the delivery of public services, not solely those appointed or elected to public office. This is increasingly relevant to our work as the move to contract or outsource public services gains pace and I will talk a bit more about that later.
A recent independent Triennial Review of the Committee found a continuing need for the Committee to exist as an independent, permanent and self-activating ethics monitor/reviewer across all aspects of public life. We are separate from sectoral regulators and independent of government which means that we can focus on broad principles, systems and frameworks and are able to make uncomfortable findings and recommendations where necessary.
The Committee was created in 1994 in response to a number of allegations of “sleaze” or corrupt practices and over the past 19 years we have looked into a wide range of issues including local government, the funding of political parties, MPs’ expenses and most recently, lobbying including what is sometimes called the “revolving door” of public-private employment. All of these issues raise questions about the cumulative effect of money, influence and power and vested interests influencing decision making. My Committee’s particular interest is in the implications of this for ethical standards in public life.
In its first ever report, the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended seven principles to guide the behaviour of those who serve the public in any way.
These are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
The Committee has been pivotal in developing many of the ethical structures and expectations about behaviour in public life set out in the seven principles which are now widely recognised across the public sector and beyond.
We believe standards of behaviour matter. They are particularly important where public money is being spent on public services or public functions. Citizens have a right to expect that holders of public office who take decisions which affect their lives should do so with impartiality, should be truthful about what they are doing and should use public money wisely. Society can expect better outcomes when decisions are made fairly and on merit and not influenced by personal or private interests. Organisations in every sector benefit from greater legitimacy when the public has confidence in their integrity.
So I would like to go on to explain what the Committee considers to be important in ensuring trust in decision makers from an ethical standards perspective.
Public Opinion Surveys
While we can never manufacture trust in our politicians or other public servants, public perceptions are nevertheless an important barometer to help us determine what standards the public expects of them when operating in the political system.
The Committee published its 5th general survey of public attitudes, conducted every 2 years, in September.
The survey looks at the British public’s view of what standards are most important to uphold, how public office holders are doing at living up to those standards, and whether they are being sufficiently held to account for any transgressions against them.
The surveys have consistently demonstrated that members of the public expect people in public office:
- To be committed to public rather than private ends (selflessness and integrity);
- To be honest and open in decision-making;
- To make decisions in the light of the best evidence (objectivity);
- To be held accountable; and for senior public figures; and
- To in some respect lead exemplary lives (leadership).
It won’t surprise you to know that the overall rating of standards of conduct of public office holders continues to decline. 28% of respondents rated conduct as either ‘quite low or very low’. This has declined continuously since 2004. There was also an increase in the proportion of people thinking that standards had ‘got a lot worse.’ There are some signs of more positive responses. The number rating standards ‘quite high or very high’ increased marginally; and there was a slight increase in those thinking that standards had improved a little.
In each survey we have asked people about their levels of trust (to tell the truth) in relation to various professions. Detailed analysis suggested that the public tend to group professions and respond to members of each group in the same way. In this most recent survey report we contextualised our findings by reference to data from the European Social Survey and the IPSOS-MORI Veracity Index. This allowed us to see that the question largely elicits relative judgments about particular professions in the public domain – where changing rating taps something of significance – without it being the case that the low absolute levels of confidence in, for example, Ministers and MPs in general are necessarily a major cause for concern.
These levels of trust should also be compared with the levels of trust in institutions and in processes and those responsible for administering those processes. So, for example, in most states that have low and falling levels of confidence in politicians, there is higher confidence in national institutions, and much higher confidence in the legal system and the police. Questions of trust are valuable tracking devices for changes (but the comparative analysis of findings points to the dangers of generalising from a narrow focus on particular personnel).
Taken as a whole the evidence from our survey suggests that public attitudes are broadly stable, that they respond to events and their reporting, and they can become more negative or more positive. The data and analysis demonstrate that confidence levels in public standards are not a fixed feature of British society that shows inevitable long-term decline but a feature of the British political scene that is influenced by events. This suggests that the public’s perceptions of standards in public life can be repaired as well as damaged.
In our survey we explored, amongst other things, which measures for ensuring good standards of conduct in public life elicit the most public support. The questions were informed by a common distinction drawn between ‘compliance-based’ and ‘integrity-based’ behaviour: that is, between good behaviour resulting from a well-designed and systematically enforced external set of rules, and good behaviour that is internally driven and the result of strong ethical character. Respondents were asked to choose up to three policies they thought important in ensuring probity in large public and private organisations.
The responses of different groups of respondents - as distinguished by trust in public office holders, perceptions of standards, party-political preferences, social grade, ethnicity, age and gender - were compared to see if there were any clear differences found in how various segments of the public think that probity should be promoted. In fact, none of these comparisons yielded significant differences.
There was very wide agreement in all segments of the British general public about the ways in which probity in both the public (and the private sector) can be promoted. The ways seen as most important are the promotion of a culture in which people are not afraid to report wrongdoing, the use of codes of proper conduct in which staff are trained, and the setting of a good example by senior managers.
The risks of influence
I mentioned earlier about the confluence of money, influence and power and vested interests: it is often not known who is influencing decisions or what may have been done to achieve that influence. This risk arises from suspicions:
- that lobbying may be taking place in secret – people do not know who is influencing a decision and those who take a different view do not have the opportunity to rebut arguments and present alternative views;
- that some individuals or organisations have greater access to policy makers, because they or someone they know works with them, because they are significant donors to a political party or simply because they have more resources;
- of the way influence can be exerted, either because it is accompanied by entertainment or other inducements or because there is a lack of clarity about who is financing particular activities.
At a time of growing disengagement and disconnection from the political system, it is all the more important that the public has confidence that policy decisions are made fairly and on merit; without undue influence from vested interests and in an open and transparency manner – the process by which a decision is made matters.
But transparency is not enough on its own. In the case of MP’s expenses in the UK Parliament, resisting transparency about their expenditure certainly fuelled the negative perceptions and mistrust of MPs, but the real issue was not necessarily that they were secret. It was that when they were revealed, the activities of certain MPs were shown to be reproachful.
That is why I believe the wider concept of ethics is so important. The Committee’s, Standards matter: A review of best practice in promoting good behaviour in public life, published in January under the chairmanship of my predecessor, was designed to understand better what are the most effective ways of driving high ethical standards. As part of that review, the Committee examined best practice in civil society and the private sector, where the management of ethical risks is increasingly being seen as integral to the good governance of policy and decision making.
What we found led us to some important conclusions:
- the three key building blocks identified in the Committee’s very first report – that is, education and training on ethical issues for public office-holders, the introduction of codes of conduct by public bodies, and setting up systems of independent scrutiny to oversee and regulate behaviour – still need to be at the centre of promoting good conduct in public life.
- that what is needed now is not, generally, more rules, codes, guides and regulators, it is the incorporation of ethical standards into the culture of each organisation in the public sector and positively driven by leadership and example.
- the third conclusion is specific to a current trend in the UK to give organisations from outside the public sector, like businesses and charities, a greater involvement in providing public services, by working together and contracting services out. This brings many benefits, often offering a more efficient service for less money, but we concluded that it also brings a risk: that the ethical standards people expect from providers of public services might slip. Either the culture of the newly-involved organisations might not fit so well with the ‘public service ethos’, or because the established systems for promoting high standards in the public sector might not extend to cover those organisations effectively. Either way, the Committee advised that those responsible for changing the public services model should bear these ethical risks in mind and particularly address ethical issues in the procurement process.
- Finally, as already mentioned, low and declining levels of confidence in the integrity of public institutions remains a matter of concern. Some people have taken the view that nothing can be done, and this is just part of the inevitable fluctuation of public opinion. Whilst trust is a complex phenomenon, my Committee believes there is scope for trying to increase public confidence in public office holders and institutions and reverse the decline in trust by:
- being more attentive to, and active in, addressing emerging ethical standards issues as they arise rather than waiting until pressure for reform; and
- public office holders and organisations seeking to improve their own trustworthiness by establishing and promulgating robust mechanisms for detecting and dealing with wrongdoing and creating a culture where high standards are seen as everyone’s personal responsibility.
Ends, 2049 words
Questions for discussion
- What are the expectations of citizens and businesses today from a healthy political system? What are the implications for democratic processes?
- How can open, fair and inclusive policy making promote trust in government?
- How are the risks of influence jeopardising the fairness of decision making?