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Seven Principles of Public Life – how do you match up?

Emily Mayne Emily Mayne

In a month where one MP’s alleged breaches of Parliamentary standards rocked the government, Emily Mayne revisits Nolan's Seven Principles of Public Life and offers some checklist questions for those in public service. 

The recent headline case of the now former MP Owen Patterson, following alleged breaches to rules around MPs' code of conduct, has shone a bright light on government culture. But the potential for expediency can happen in any public sector system in the pursuit of a broader agenda, set of targets or policy initiative.

If public servants can ‘rationalise’ their actions, it's easy to see how, with opportunity and potential pressure to deliver a particular outcome, decisions are made which compromise these principles. But it’s a dangerous path to tread with potentially serious repercussions for both individual and organisation.

The seven Nolan principles have underpinned conduct in public life for more than 25 years. They are still relevant today and they can help to protect your organisation – and you.

What are the seven Nolan principles?

In 1995 the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Lord Nolan, received its first report establishing the Seven Principles of Public Life. Now referred to as the 'Nolan principles', the recommendations aimed at improving standards of behaviour in public life. There are seven basic principles.

1 Selflessness

Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.

2 Integrity

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

3 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.

4 Accountability

Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public, and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

5 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.

6 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.

7 Leadership

Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

Where governance fails in local government

Grant Thornton Public Interest Reports (2021) and local counter fraud specialists have highlighted poor behaviours at a number of local authorities. The PIRs at Nottingham City Council (August 2020), the London Borough of Croydon (October 2020), and Northampton Borough Council (January 2021) were the first issued since 2016. And all three clearly show some of the local government issues. At Northampton County Council, for example, the independent auditor raised "serious failings" around a failed £10 million loan to Northampton Town FC. Their report highlights objections from three opposition councillors concerned about the financial viability and the governance of the loan. The report criticises the council for not referring the matter to the overview and scrutiny committee.

With concerns raised, it seems to be less about the system of governance in place, and more about how it operates, who operates it, and how willing they are to accept scrutiny and challenge.

Where governance fails in the NHS

There are also examples from the NHS where governance fails because there is not a sufficiently consistent and strong focus on the Nolan principles. The Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public enquiry, for example, highlighted serious failings in decisions made collectively and also by individuals. A culture of results over principles can not only put officers at risk, but in that case, lives.

Every employee of the public sector should be familiar with Nolan’s Seven Principles of Public Life. This is particularly important for NHS leaders: those in a position of authority and who set the culture of an organisation. If they are to maintain their credibility with government and the public, public sector organisations must be impartial and honest in their business. Their officers must also be seen to act with integrity, demonstrating a concern for the best use of taxpayers' money.

Applying the Nolan principles

The seven principles may seem straightforward but to apply them successfully involves consistency of focus and an awareness of where you can go wrong. Disclosing interests and stepping away where a conflict would present is standard practice. But those in decision-making positions need to understand the far-reaching nature of this requirement which includes interests held by a close family member, business partner, close friend or associate. Outside employment – particularly for non-executive directors, clinical consultants or GPs – should also be declared so that there is transparency to any business being discussed and decisions being made.

Gifts, hospitality and corporate sponsorship are other areas where disclosures may be overlooked, particularly where there is custom and practice or long-standing arrangements.

Directors have a responsibility to ensure appropriate use of public funds. You need transparency at all levels. Even lower value transactions can also add up over a period of time, as evidenced by the claiming of inappropriate MP expenses which came to light in 2009.

Appropriate use of public funds also applies to financial plans and budgets. Overly optimistic or heroic assumptions in medium-term financial plans are being seen more often as NHS bodies seek to deliver services against a backdrop of short-term funding and on-going operational pressures. Accountability is crucial here, with the whole board adopting and approving the financial statements. The application of accounting policies and disclosure of financial performance provides the public with oversight of the financial stewardship of public funds – the acid test. Budgets and strategies should be owned at a board level and uphold these principles.

Questions to ask the board

Are your leaders comfortable that the decisions they make, individually or collectively, are continually living the values set out by Nolan and adhering to the Principles of Public Life?

The NHS and other organisations should challenge themselves as to whether their Conflicts of Interest Policy and Code of Conduct have been clearly communicated to all staff, and represent up to date arrangements and limits.

  • are your registers of interest and gifts and hospitality up to date and available?
  • are procurement processes mindful of relationships and possible conflicts in interest?
  • have you created a culture of openness within your organisation where staff regularly update their position as circumstances change, or is this driven by a one-off exercise?

With the changing landscape within local systems you may need to consider whether these arrangements require revision to reflect the wider integrated care system (ICS) boundaries.

Financial judgements are a key area where the Principles of Public Life must be applied.

  • are financial strategies, budgets and statements presented with realistic assumptions?
  • are those charged with governance satisfied that accounting policies are appropriate and consistent year on year?
  • are decisions being made to facilitate the best use of public money or to achieve the delivery of a goal or meet a target?

Maintaining ethical standards in public life

Maintaining standards in public life takes sustained work. Adherence to ethical standards is a matter of personal responsibility which staff must choose to uphold in their everyday work and private lives.

More than 25 years since the Nolan principles were introduced, the vast majority of public sector employees comply. But it is the few who do not who make the headlines and thereby 'name and shame' themselves and the organisations they work for.

With the Owen Patterson case rocking central government, now is a timely moment for many public sector leaders and governors to ask: are my organisation’s arrangements and culture robust enough to live up to Nolan’s principles and also be seen to do so?

To discuss these issues further, contact Emily Mayne.

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