Standards: the search for common ground

By John Tizard | 11 January 2022

Across the public sector among politicians, executives and staff, while there is generally a relatively good understanding of the Nolan Principles of Public Life, the same cannot be said of universal compliance with those principles – with some high profile examples of flouting them at the highest levels.

In my experience, the level and sophistication of understanding of these principles tends to be less developed in many charities, community organisations and businesses. Frequently, there is not always a shared acceptance that the principles should apply to them.

This is not because of the actual words ‘public life’. Too often, among charities and community organisations, there is a default view that simply because one is a trustee or member of staff in such an organisation, one is automatically virtuous and therefore must be deemed always to be behaving to the highest standards.

For businesses the issues are commonly seen as different, with a view prevailing for the most part that corporate legal standards are sufficient. Of course, none of these perceived special dispensations are valid.

I have had the privilege of serving on boards in the business, charity and community sectors, served as a councillor and leader in local government and on other public sector boards and, over the years, advised colleagues in all these sectors on governance matters.

Reflecting on that experience, my view these days is that while values and purpose may be different between sectors and organisations, the principles of exemplar governance and behaviour should be universal – as should adherence to the Nolan Principles.

Therefore, the challenge is about how to establish and implement common standards across all sectors.

This should include addressing the topical concern of failing to respect colleagues and those with whom there may be differences of opinion, including political and professional views. We should be able to have robust argument, debate, and express differences of opinion without resorting to personal attacks and vitriol.

This is not a call to always expect consensus, especially if it means coalescing around the lowest common denominator. Consensus, yes, when appropriate and achievable – but not when it impedes progress.

Over the years and in many settings in both this country and internationally, I have found that mistrust between the sectors commonly arises from a lack of understanding of each other’s goals, drivers, accountabilities, and constraints.

Some problems arise from misunderstanding of each other’s culture, language and vocabulary. I have frequently found myself acting as a ‘translator’ when attempting to broker and facilitate understanding and agreements across sectors – even when they are speaking the same language.

This is never more so than when confronting the yawning chasm between Whitehall and local government and, too often, between councils and charities, including the local community sector.

Inappropriate behaviour by individuals – especially leaders – being driven by greed, being too impatient, putting ego ahead of the public interest, lying, abusing power…undermines trust.

Whatever else is going to be required to build back better – build back fairer, build for equity and equality, create resilient and engaged communities, foster sustainable inclusive local economies, address the climate emergency and to tax and spend wisely on effective public services – collaboration and creativity within and between sectors will be most critical.

In making the case for collaboration, I am not advocating that the state outsources public services or expects the community sector or charities to become its surrogate. Such approaches undermine effective collaboration and creativity and the wider public interest.

What matters is finding common cause to champion fairness, equity, equality, wellbeing, environmental sustainability and wider public policy goals, and community ambition.

Accordingly, I have been wondering if, as part of their leadership of place role, councils could consider ways of bringing people together from across the public sector, business, charities, and the community sector to:

  • explore and better understand their respective roles, goals, drivers, and accountabilities
  • explore what they have (and could have) in common – in terms of shared local objectives, and even potential sharing of resources and people – as well as differences in their goals and the reasons for these
  • promote universal adoption of behavioural standards based on the Nolan Principles
  • ensure that procurement and contracts hold the parties to account for upholding these principles and behaving appropriately
  • facilitate individual and institutional self-reflection to challenge defensiveness, preciousness, arrogance, and inappropriate virtuosity signalling/posturing simply because of professional, hierarchical and/or sector position/status.

Such an approach should never be about blurring the differences between sectors nor undermining their independence, especially the independence of charities and the community sector to challenge and campaign. Rather, it should be about shared understanding, mutual respect and creating the conditions to foster trust to enable a resolute focus on outcomes and holding each other to account.

John Tizard is a strategic adviser, former council leader and former director of Capita

@JohnTizard

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