Standards in Public Life in the UK: A 2020 vision

It’s 25 years since the UK set up its Committee on Standards in Public Life. As author of the ‘Nolan principles’, the Committee has inspired other countries around the world to introduce codes of conduct for public officials and politicians, but what has become of the UK standards landscape in the meantime? In this post, CSC researcher Rebecca Dobson Phillips maps the landscape.

In the heat of our fast-paced, media-focused culture, it is perhaps inevitable that interest in public standards peaks in the wake of a scandal and then troughs in the quiet in-between when much of the real work is done. The 25-year anniversary of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) therefore provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on public standards more broadly, as a public good with a frontline role protecting our democratic institutions from corruption, conflicts of interest and other forms of misconduct.

I was delighted to be commissioned by the Committee to undertake a new mapping exercise of the standards landscape in England and reflect on the key changes over the past quarter-century. The full review, published today, provides an overview of the standards landscape effective in central and local government in the United Kingdom. This offers a vantage point from which to view the landscape’s shape and form over time, its strengths and weaknesses, and challenges to the maintenance of public standards in the context of emerging technological, social and political pressures.

The public standards landscape is conceived broadly. It ranges from Westminster and Whitehall to the judiciary and local government, and also incorporates groups that formerly might not have been considered public entities at all, including political parties and third-party actors such as lobbyists and private sector providers of public services. This broad approach reflects the concerns of the CSPL as it has responded to the demands of a shifting political culture and the take up of governance approaches that have blurred the distinction between the public and private spheres.

The Mapping Exercise charts the embedding of standards through codes of conduct, transparency and accountability mechanisms, ethics training and tailored advice. However, the direction and speed of travel is uneven and there remains significant discretion particularly in political and judicial institutions, which have a preference for self-regulation and case-by-case judgments. These exceptions serve to maintain the sovereignty of political decision-making and the independence and impartiality of the judiciary. However, they also reveal the clear limits of bureaucratic accountability, highlighting the importance of simultaneously supporting democratic processes and the rule of law to ensure our institutions are well governed, responsive to the public interest and provide effective checks on power.

The upholders of public standards have a crucial role in anticipating challenges, whether these originate in society—through changing public attitudes, the role of technology and social media, and the influence of lobbying groups—or from within political institutions, manifest in the policy decisions made by those in power. Success at the ballot box provides governments with the democratic mandate to reform governance arrangements in pursuit of their stated policy aims. However, it is important to recognise that such reforms can compromise existing standards frameworks. The unintended consequences of changing institutional cultures and ways of working in the pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness can have ethical consequences, potentially increasing the risks to high standards along the way.

We have a long tradition of thoughtful and balanced responses to ethical issues, possess a widely distributed system of public standards, and for the most part have well-embedded cultures of integrity in our public institutions. But this is not a moment for complacency. We are experiencing a period of profound social and political change, which will likely test the limits of the standards regime. Public standards are not inalienable; to a large degree they rely on shared principles and trust in others, and this trust can easily erode during periods of change and uncertainty. In this context, the CSPL’s Seven Principles of Public Life are an essential reminder to all—whatever the pressures of the time—of the duty to act with integrity and without bias and in the public interest.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life first published this blog on 24 February 2020.

The Report can be accessed here.

Building public procurement integrity in Jamaica

Public procurement is one of the key ways of corruptly channelling money out of the state, not least because it is one of the few areas of public spending where there is significant discretion. In a well-functioning state, there are many bodies with an interest in controlling and overseeing procurement. Yet it is surprisingly rare to see all the parties together in the same room, talking about how they can work together. As CSC Director Liz David-Barrett explains here, that is exactly what just happened in an intense two-day workshop on analysing procurement data for integrity risks in Jamaica.

Our main partner, and co-organiser of the workshop, is the Integrity Commission of Jamaica. With a mandate to prevent, investigate, and prosecute corruption, one of the Integrity Commission’s core functions is to oversee public procurement. Moreover, it is because they – and one of their predecessor organisations, the Office of the Contractor General – have been collecting and publishing public procurement data since 2006, that we were able to select Jamaica as one of the countries of analysis in our GI-ACE research.

Jamaica was an obvious choice for our follow-on work, in which we are collaborating with the Integrity Commission to develop an online interface that will make it much easier to analyse procurement data. As well as having good data, there are a number of highly competent interested agencies in Jamaica, with various roles in overseeing contracting, and longstanding Department for International Development (UK-DFID) support for local agencies that work to fight grand corruption and organised crime.

The Integrity Commission expertly convened a group of potential users from a range of government agencies to attend our workshop. As well as their own investigators and monitors, and their data collection and analysis team, they invited several other organisations to the table. Over the two days, we learned about the many different ways in which analysis of procurement data could assist their work.

Instead of relying on a random sample, the Auditor General, for example, is interested in running a series of analyses of supplier risk, sectoral risk, and cost over-runs, as a preliminary risk assessment that would help them choose more selectively where to target their audit resources. Another government agency, meanwhile, is interested in matching up how much companies declare in income with the value of the contracts they have been awarded. Yet another wants to improve project implementation throughout the public procurement process.

The Public Procurement Commission, which is responsible for checking the credentials of companies that wish to register to participate in public tenders, is keen to develop a mechanism for evaluating contract performance. They also would like to identify conflicts of interest among public bodies and contractors, and create risk profiles for suppliers. Such information might inform their decisions to deny access to public contracts, or to downgrade or suspend the registration of suppliers.

Policymakers also are keen to build an evidence base that can inform future policy design, using the tool to compare competitive and non-competitive processes, assessing the impact of a change in thresholds, and to tracking efficiency in areas such as framework agreements.

Law enforcement agencies emphasise the generation of evidence about individual cases, which can include tracing conflicts of interest and gaining a sense of contract-level and supplier risk patterns.

There was huge enthusiasm in the room for developing a user-friendly tool to detect corruption in contracting. Our next step is to assess just how many of these needs we can meet in the online portal design. Much of that depends on the underlying data, but where we can’t immediately fulfil a need, we will be able to highlight areas where collecting more data could underpin enhanced analysis in the future.

The workshop has already had one big benefit: It helped create awareness and support networks among these varied agencies on how they can work together. One participant reported, “It was rewarding to get the different views on the challenges faced and the different suggestions and remedies; it also opened the gate for future collaboration,” while another commented, “The information from the other participants served to show the endless connections and the interconnectedness that can be achieved.”

Fighting corruption is partly about having the evidence base to design good policy, but it’s also about having the right teams in place to implement it.

This blog was previously posted by the Global Integrity-ACE programme.