by Professor Bob Hudson
Ever since the 2016 EU referendum it has felt to many that we are at a moral crossroad in UK public life. The event was conducted on the basis of deception – lies about the NHS; lies about Turkey’s membership of the EU; lies about immigration from Iraq and Syria, gross breaches of electoral law and much more. Moreover, it didn’t seem to matter. All the old conventions and understandings around honesty and honour no longer held and all that mattered was winning. We were in a terrifying ‘post-truth’ era.
This loss of honesty isn’t confined to Brexit – it neither started nor finished in 2016. Across the public policy landscape there is often scant respect for integrity in policy design or policy outcomes. In recent years alone universal credit, free schools, right-to-buy, the privatisation of social care, the roll-out of new models of health care are all portrayed as successful missions regardless of the lack of supporting evidence or indeed of evidence to the contrary. Moreover ethical failure is not confined to politics and policy, it is also worryingly familiar in some front-line practice. In the case of people with complex health and care needs, for example, Winterbourne View, Whorlton Hall, Muckamore Abbey and others are part of a roll-call of moral shame stretching back to the scandals of the long-stay hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s and beyond.
Despite all of this, discussions on ethics and ethical behaviour are rare. On the few occasions that politicians acknowledge the place of ethics it tends to be confined to distinct ‘moral dilemmas’ thought suitable for a vote of conscience, such as abortion, civil marriage and assisted dying. Our spiritual leaders tend to be seen as appropriate moral arbiters for these matters, though they risk outrage if they stray into wider policies such as poverty and inequality. In reality the relationship between politics, public policy and ethics is much more intertwined. Ethical considerations are at the heart of what governments ought to do and ought not to do; they are central to the principles that should guide decision-making; they underpin how a problem is defined, how a response is shaped and how an evaluation is framed. Ethical neutrality by the state – or business – is not an option.
The time is long overdue for a fresh approach that rekindles trust in public life by putting in place robust requirements for ethical behaviour. The first step is to find some agreement on what sort of ethical standards are appropriate – to operationalise ideas about good or bad, right and wrong, into a practicable code of behaviour. In England the most notable attempt to address the place of ethics in public life was the creation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) by the then Prime Minister, John Major, in 1994. The task of the CSPL was ‘to examine concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities’. The Committee went on to create the seven principles of public life, now often referred to as the ‘Nolan Principles’: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability’ openness, honesty and leadership.
Despite the best efforts of the small and under-powered CSPL there is little evidence to suggest that these recommendations are widely or routinely observed. Some conceptual clarification might also be needed in order to consider the place of additional compelling ethical concepts such as respect, concern, responsibility, competence, trust, wisdom, kindness, justice, service, courage and optimism. This sort of conceptual clarification and codification is, however, not enough. Further measures are then needed that institutionalise the ethical imperative. These could be a mix of carrots and sticks to include the following:
Ethical Leadership: This involves a clear message from the top of any organisation that ethical behaviour really matters. One useful example from the field of education is the Ethical Leadership Commission – an influential body founded recently by head teachers to come up with a set of values to help school leaders navigate an educational ‘moral maze’ in which a preoccupation with results has led to such incidents as ‘off-rolling’, exam cheating and channelling students into easier subjects. The Commission took as its starting point the Nolan principles and over a hundred schools are now trialling the framework in relation to real-life dilemmas. But it cannot just be about leadership; managers and front-line practitioners also need time and space to develop and apply ethical competence.
Respect for Evidence: Respect for evidence is crucial in challenging the ‘post-truth’ model of politics and policy-making. Robust policy design is crucial as too many policies are flawed in design and therefore fail to address the problems they were set up to address. This deficiency is then compounded by inadequate use of data in monitoring policy implementation. In the USA the, the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, set up in 2016, issued its final report eighteen months later which outlined a vision for ‘a future in which rigorous evidence is created efficiently as a routine part of government operations and used to construct effective public policy’. These recommendations subsequently became federal law in the 2018 Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, 2017 – just squeezing in ahead of the impact of the Trump presidency.
Ethical Company Law; Given the outsourcing of so many aspects of public services it is vital to also look at issues of governance and purpose in company law. Corporations in the UK were originally established with clear public purposes; it is only over the last half century that corporate purpose has come to be equated solely with profit and the primacy of shareholder interest. A reconceptualisation of the corporation around social purpose and mission is long overdue. A report from the British Academy, for example, argues the case for replacing property right views of ownership with one rooted in a redefined corporate purpose within which companies are expected to perform significant social functions. This implies significantly different structures of governance that would include direct workers, service users and citizens.
Enforcement of Ethical Standards: Finally there is the need for some form of institutional checks on breaches of integrity. As currently constituted the CSPL lacks the powers to undertake such a role but stronger models exist elsewhere. In Australia the National Integrity Commission Bill (2018) sought to establish an Australian National Integrity Commission as an independent public sector anti-corruption commission. Although there are ongoing criticisms of the likely limitations of the remit such a Commission might cover it is nevertheless an important debate that is yet to even start in the UK. Similarly there are useful lessons waiting to be learned from Canada where an independent Ethics Commissioner with strong powers was established as long ago as 2007 and has just declared the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, to be in serious breach of constitutional principles .
The perceived loss of honesty in public life carries the deeper risk of loss of all faith in democratic governance – a concern of huge topicality. While the British people have never expressed that much faith in their politicians, over the past thirty years or so their distrust of politics, and unhappiness with how politics is seen to be working, has been steadily rising. Bringing ethical concerns into mainstream public life is not only important, it is arguably the most urgent political project of them all.
Professor Bob Hudson, Centre for Health Services Studies, University of Kent.