For most chief executives, ethics and standards were once one of the ‘easier’ parts of the job. Running a democratic, social purpose organisation which naturally attracted people who wanted to positively contribute, either as politicians or employees, meant a few policies, a couple of forms and a training course had you covered.
We now live in different times and the task of setting and maintaining ethical standards is more substantive. The Committee for Standards in Public Life recently noted while standards are being maintained overall, there is more that could and should be done.
There are a number of factors behind this and why we now need a different approach to attract and keep our current and future employees.
Politically we are (to state the blindingly obvious) living in challenging times. The two-party system is shifting, bringing with it less reliance on traditional ways of working and engagement. We are also seeing politicians, particularly women, facing unprecedented levels of abuse and their roles are becoming demanding. For employees, and members, this requires new approaches to training, support and guidance.
Professional standards and governance codes are tested when difficult decisions are being made and pressure is high. The confidence and experience to ‘speak to truth to power’ which has underpinned our system of governance to date may no longer be enough. If we truly believe in transparency and accountability in our decision-making, we may need more protection for key roles (section 151, monitoring officer etc) moving forward.
We know that the future of public services and trust in our institutions relies on creating new, more equal relationships with citizens and communities. To achieve this depends on the ability to let go of power, recognise our unconscious and professional bias, and truly believe in the benefits of community-led delivery. This requires a different mindset and set of rules. The National Housing Federation is leading a project to rebuild relations between landlords and tenants including a new (mostly value-based) set of standards. We’ve also developed a community constitution to complement the New Local Government Network’s latest thinking.
Lastly, and possibly most importantly, we are a people business. We know that our future employees and existing staff group are more concerned about the ethical standards of their employers. The private sector is moving at pace in this department – listing their ethical, environmental, social and economic commitments alongside the benefits package. We are working with ENGIE and Skanska UK to bring more openness and scrutiny to the way they work. Employees now care as much about how organisations operate, as to what they do. Local government will need to sell itself more proactively to be a future employer of choice.
Local government is naturally well-placed to lead the way in evolving and supporting ethical standards to meet these new circumstances and demands. It will not however happen by chance and there are significant risks in keeping it a low priority or failing to provide the right training and support to enable people to change. To keep the best and attract the people, this needs continued attention both locally and nationally.
Jacqui McKinlay is chief executive at the Centre for Public Scrutiny