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David Hine of the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford
David Hine of the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford

David Hine is a University lecturer in Politics, and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Government in the Department of Politics and International Relations. His main teaching interests cover comparative European government, comparative politics, and European integration. His current research is on public ethics and the machinery of public integrity enforcement in western Europe. Here he writes on the problems encountered when trying to encourage higher standards in public life in the UK. 

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.

It is a distinctive approach. Few democracies have spent so much time thinking so publicly about the cultural foundations of good standards. In many ways it makes sense to do so. Sub-standard behaviour, from the citizen’s perspective, is no less corrosive of trust and confidence than corruption, even it is unlikely to arrive in a criminal court. Hard-core corruption certainly has to be dealt with, but the solutions tend to be standardised in most jurisdictions. Positive public ethics is different, overlapping in a complex way with governance quality, with the public-service ethos, and with performance and delivery.

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.

Let me offer three reasons why standards issues continue to trouble us so much, despite the many years of good work by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

First, whatever the CSPL may have wanted, the question “how do you promote cultural dissemination of values and principles?” tends increasingly to be answered in terms of harder rules, and tougher consequences. Principles tend to turn out to be too vague to be useful in morally conflicting circumstances, education and training tend to get missed out or delivered formulaically, and the codes therefore become rules.

This erodes the distinction between the promotion of the good and the detection and repression of the bad. The shift of perspective in the work of the CSPL itself is evidence of this. By 2000, it had completed its examination of the main institutions of public life. Its subsequent work, until its recent efforts to tackle lobbying, was largely re-examination and monitoring. Almost despite itself, it frequently recommended more rules and more statutory under-pinning. And often, the principle of independent scrutiny was then taken by the government, or the hard-pressed leadership in a particular area of public life where standards were said to be inadequate, to imply formal enforcement by an external body. So a tick-box, compliance-driven morality, which the CSPL understandably always said it disliked, has proved difficult to resist. External enforcement has addressed short-term political expediency at the expense of effective internal scrutiny and accountability. At lower levels it has often replaced self-policing with a rule book that keeps adherents out of trouble, but does not always solve moral dilemmas.

Secondly, different and often competing meanings are embedded in the idea of “culture”. Ethical culture overlaps with the public-service ethos: for reasons that are blandly uncontroversial (everyone wants better standards of service-quality and delivery) but also partisan and contentious (better standards in a fiscally-straightened world need to come at higher cost to public-sector workers and lower cost to tax-payers) this leads the standards agenda into highly-contested territory. We can define the ethical culture we are trying to deliver by inputs: how we think those who work in the public-service out to be motivated, inspired, led etc. Or we can define it by outputs: what the public has a right to expect.

Neither is a perfect measure, but the more we focus on the outputs, the more we set up conflicts and tensions. “Culture” as defined by output targets will inevitably clash with “culture” as defined by the daily objectives and dilemmas of individual teachers, health-workers, resource-managers etc. And the more the output-approach dominates, the less meaningful the inputs – so important in the eyes of the Committee on Standards in Public Life – risk becoming.

Thirdly, the “standards” agenda is deeply influenced by two other emerging governance imperatives. The first is the accountability/transparency agenda, which has been transformed by a remarkable paradigm shift in the accessibility of information in a once deeply-secretive set of UK institutions. The second is the career-structure revolution, which has eroded the boundary between public and private with effects (pay levels and differentials, the appropriateness of bonuses, post-employment conflicts of interest) with which we still grapple.

The highly-desirable standards agenda is therefore swimming against the tides of several other governance pressures, each of which has its own valid claims. Public debate lurches uncomfortably between competing objectives. What we lack is an honest public debate that acknowledges the connections, and the difficulties of reconciling public-service commitment with the rule book on one side and the claimed allocative efficiency of public-sector markets on the other. The Committee on Standards in Public Life frequently calls for this, but there are few votes for governments in addressing its calls.

Further Reading

Hine, David. 2005. “Codes of Conduct for Officials in Europe: a Comparative Analysis”, International Public Management Journal, 8(2), 2005, pp. 153-174.

Hine, David and McMahon, Robert. 2004. “Ethics management, cultural change, and the ambiguities of European Commission reform”. Working paper, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, accessed at: http://government.politics.ox.ac.uk/Projects/Papers/Hine-McMahon_Ethics_Management.pdf

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