Principles of Public Service – can we live up to them?


At a time when the behaviour of senior executives in the financial world is being scrutinised by politicians, the media, and the general public I thought it might be worthwhile to explore what might be reasonably expected of those of us who hold senior executive positions in the public sector

The most suitable place to start this analysis would be with reference to the Seven Principles of Public Office, sometimes referred to as Nolan’s Principles, after Lord Nolan who reported to Parliament in 1995 on Standards in Public Life. The principles are as follows:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

As a public servant who is committed to the old fashioned concepts of duty and service I find the above principles to be a very useful reminder of the standards which should guide my professional life. The first three principles of selflessness, integrity and objectivity would appear to have been sadly missing in any analysis of some of the practices which have been apparent in the financial and business world over the last few years.

I have no doubt that this level of scrutiny will turn its attention on those of us in public service – particularly as the notion of value for money comes to play an even bigger role in such considerations. In many respects the opportunity for personal gain in terms of money, or benefit in kind, are relatively limited in my own area of responsibility. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to carefully filter invitations, offers of hospitality and any other “free lunch” by using the principles of selflessness, integrity and objectivity to ensure that I gain no personal benefit from that opportunity.

Beyond the first three principles the practice of a public servant must be underpinned by the remaining principles on a daily and continuing basis. I often try to explain that the difference between two people, one of whom is in a senior position and the other who is not, can be captured in the difference in accountability. I suppose it’s most clearly seen in recent times through the dismissal of Janet Shoesmith, the Director for Children’s Services in Haringey, for being ultimately held accountable for the quality of the entire service provided, whereas the person of lower seniority has a more limited range of accountability.

The principle of accountability sits beside the commitment to openness, which, if pushed ,I would suggest, is the foundation for all the other principles. For I believe that the more we can do to be as open and transparent in our business the less we can be accused of failing to live up to any of the other principles. This is a lot harder to live up to than one might imagine, as it takes 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”

Lastly, the principle of leadership, rests upon our capacity to live up to these principles and – above all – live them out in our own practice as an example to others. Now that is difficult!!

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  1. Pingback: Is transparency worth it? : Don Ledingham’s Learning Log

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