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Standards in Public Life

In the United Kingdom, thanks to the powerful influence of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, we tend to see public ethics primarily in positive terms: as standards to be upheld not as criminal corruption to be prevented. The Committee’s approach has been built on four key elements: high-level principles; codes of conduct for each area of public life; mechanisms of independent scrutiny; and education and training in the values implied by the principles and codes. Unfortunately, however, the focus on “standards” creates an ever-expanding public-ethics agenda. It builds on a challenging, if intuitively persuasive, premise: that we really can identify what, in its most recent Inquiry, the Committee called “best practice in promoting good behaviour in public life”. Too frequently it seems we fail to do so. The more we discuss “standards” the more we see the gap between theory and reality. Public organisations have regularly failed to deliver on basic standards of provision – for example in health or social care – and then concealed their failures. Public-private partnerships have revealed manifest unaddressed conflicts of interest. At senior levels blame avoidance is a regular feature of the policy process. As a result, we are still struggling to identify what, in cultural terms, works to uphold a cultural approach to ethics and integrity.