Events in Washington DC in recent weeks have been a sobering reminder of the importance of protecting high standards in public life. We cannot equate the horrifying events at the US Capitol with UK local government and thankfully we remain some distance from the events surrounding the presidential election and its political repercussions. Yet we – local government as a whole – should still reflect on the slow glacial erosion of standards, as well as seismic isolated events. It is too easy to focus on the exception, and recognise the impact of more incremental decay.
While very different in many ways, our system of Government shares many challenges with other western liberal democracies – not least from social media, the undermining of expertise and its exploitation by individuals on the fringes of our political system.
It is not just in the US that we have seen each breach in moral standards moving the definition of what is ‘normal’, and yet it isn’t until an event like that at the Capitol which makes us appreciate how far the goalposts have moved.
In England in particular, we have also witnessed factors throughout the last decade that have weakened the foundations of good governance, some by design, others less intended. The context in which we operate has changed drastically.
The local government ecosystem is more complex, financially unstable, time poor and underpinned by greater commercialisation, all of which create a greater challenge to our ethical standards. While simultaneously, our safeguards have been eroded through the dismantling of national standards, the removal of sanctions and the disempowerment of statutory officers whose job it is to keep us all safe.
We find ourselves simultaneously more challenged and less protected than for some time. Each step, in isolation, may be small but as they accumulate, are we comfortable with the impact? Do we wait for the next crisis to realise how far our ethical goalposts have shifted? I think we should recognise these challenges and set our own aspirations higher.
This month sees the two-year anniversary of the Committee for Standards in Public Life’s (CSPL) report on Local Government Ethical Standards. The Local Government Association has recently concluded consultation on a model code of conduct, yet the Government has yet to respond to the report or seemingly start work on implementing recommendations.
Of the 26 recommendations made, all but four require Government action. Leadership is long overdue.
The report chose to focus on member conduct, yet this shouldn’t allow officers to be either complacent or ignore their own challenges. The erosion of the standards regime creates space for senior officers to be complicit in poor conduct and the origin of it, when they should be standards guardians and set the tone for the organisations they serve. Solace’s own code of ethics is our keystone, and there is more we can do to incorporate standards into training, coaching and the setting of performance frameworks.
As the CSPL report found, local government has the willingness and capacity to uphold the highest standards of conduct in our councils, yet we need the recommendations from the CSPL report to be implemented to enable us to do so.
The last 12 months have shown both how well councils are able to function – but also what intense stress they are under. The vast majority of councillors and officers want to maintain the highest standards of conduct in their own authority. However, a minority engage in bullying or harassment, or other highly disruptive behaviour. The challenge is to maintain a system which serves the best interests of councillors, whilst addressing the unacceptable behaviour by a minority, and guarding against potential corporate standards risks.
Ensuring the appropriate sanctions, including suspension, are in place and available to an independent Standards Committee is critical to the reestablishment of a sufficient approach. It cannot be right, for example, that an individual convicted of sexual assault is able to play a decision-making role within the organisation where the offence took place. While this fortunately remains rare, the media testifies to too many examples where the sector is brought into disrepute, yet the sector has been unable to deal with it.
We will not let a small minority overshadow the superb efforts of the vast majority working in and around our councils. We continue to be more trusted than national colleagues, and residents’ satisfaction has held up remarkably despite all that councils have had to manage. With Government’s help we can create an approach to standards that is fit for purpose, and not wait for the next front page story before we act. The things we value are more at risk from the incremental, unchallenged moving of goalposts, than through any one-off event.
Graeme McDonald is managing director of Solace and Solace in Business