Time to live by these principles

20th February 2009 at 00:00

At a time when the behaviour of senior executives in the financial world is being scrutinised by politicians, the media and public, what might be expected of those senior executives in the public sector?

A suitable place to start this analysis would be with reference to the Seven Principles of Public Office, sometimes referred to as the Nolan principles, after Lord Nolan (pictured) who reported to the UK parliament in 1995 on standards in public life. They are as follows:

Selflessness: holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.

Integrity: holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.

Objectivity: in carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.

Accountability: holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

Openness: holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands it.

Honesty: holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.

Leadership: holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

As a public servant committed to the old-fashioned concepts of duty and service, I find these principles a useful reminder of the standards which should guide my professional life. The first three appear to be missing in any analysis of some of the practices apparent in parts of the financial and business world over the last few years. I have no doubt that this level of scrutiny will be turned to those of us in public service. While the opportunity for personal gain of money, or benefit in kind, are limited in my area of responsibility, it is important to filter invitations, offers of hospitality and other "free lunch" by using the first three principles to ensure we get no personal benefit.

Beyond these first three, the practice of a public servant must be underpinned by the remaining ones on a daily and continuing basis. I often try to explain to people that the difference between two people, one of whom is in a senior position and the other who is not, can be captured by the difference in accountability. I suppose it's clearly seen in recent times through the dismissal of Janet Shoesmith, director for children's services in Haringey, for being ultimately held accountable for the quality of the entire service.

Accountability sits beside the commitment to openness which, if pushed, I would suggest is the foundation for all the other principles. I believe the more we can do to be open and transparent in our business, the less we can be accused of failing to live up to any of the other principles. It takes a lot more effort to be open and to explain decisions than it might be if we were to adopt the role of the benign dictator who can be relied upon "to do the right thing for the people".

Last, leadership rests on our capacity to live up to these principles and - above all - live them out in practice as an example to others. Now that is difficult.

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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