It is hard to play by the rules when there are none left

This is a system problem. We are all asking different things of government
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Tony Blair invoked the T-word, trust, yesterday, seeking to place trust at the core of the election campaign. He is right, of course, because politicians rank alongside, ahem, journalists at the bottom of the trust league. That perception of politicians is corrosive to democracy, and anything that can counter it must be helpful.

But the issue is bigger than just hoping that politicians seeking election will do what they say. It is about public service in general as well as politics, for remember that the government is a thin crust of a few score politicians atop a mountain of public servants. And it is not just about the narrow, if enormously important, issue of trust; it is also about the wider one of ethics, the E-word, the behavioural standard of governments

Of course for all the talk of "sleaze" Britain is by no means alone in its worries. Concerns about possible falling ethical standards are surfacing throughout the developed world .They are evident in the US, throughout continental Europe, and certainly in Japan. Hardly a day goes by without some prominent person somewhere in the world being forced to resign because of some ethical shortfall. If they themselves have not done anything wrong, they are forced to resign because of the failings of some of their staff. And if they don't resign, the opprobrium is even greater: the fact that so many Tory ministers have tried to cling on has heightened our perception that they are a sleazy bunch. Wait a couple of years after the election and the new lot will be busy resigning too. Why?

This is not a people problem. People are people are people. While there will always be wrong 'uns in every walk of life there is no evidence that they are more now than they used to be. It is a system problem, for we are all asking new and different things of government.

A group at the OECD in Paris has been studying the problem and has produced some guidelines on how to manage government ethics. Any new and inexperienced government would be well advised to read them.

The core of the OECD argument is that the business of government has changed radically over the past few years. It used to be administration of a set of pre-established rules. Provided the rules were followed, public servants were free from attack, for they had done what they had been told to do: the Sir Humphry school of management. But that system created obvious inefficiencies, and people became fed up with a public sector that was unresponsive to their needs. So "keep your nose clean" was replaced by "show some initiative". A series of private sector disciplines was incorporated requiring people in government services to respond to what customers wanted.

The trouble is, if you ask people to show initiative they will make mistakes. Indeed making mistakes is part of the learning process that the private sector goes through in seeking to develop and adapt service to public demands. If you don't sometimes fail, you are not trying anything new. I have always liked the story about a rising young executive in a US manufacturing company who was in charge of putting in a new $8m computer system. It was a disaster and the whole cost had to be written off. He padded in to the chief executive and offered to resign. "Absolutely not," said his boss. "We have just spent $8m putting you through an extremely expensive management training course on computer installation and we certainly don't want you taking that expertise off to a competitor. You stay here and make sure that we never make that sort of mistake again."

You see the point. The public service ethos is completely different. A minister whose department screws up has first to try to pretend that (so to speak) the beef burgers are perfectly all right; and then when they aren't, leave it to some other poor so-and-so to carry the can five years later.

As the OECD points out, it is in the area of ethics that the tensions are most evident between the old rule-book approach to public administration and the new innovative, risk-taking one. "If there is too much control," it points out, "nothing will get done; but if there is too little control the wrong things will get done."

So there has to be a trade-off between a system which adds administrative cost by "trying to catch every misdeed, minor misdemeanour or actual corruption, versus the political costs of allowing some mistakes to occur".

So what do you do? The OECD public management group has drawn up an "ethics infrastructure" to try to promote ethical public behaviour. Key elements are:

- Political commitment: politicians saying they are important and setting an example.

- Legal framework: laws that set standards and enforce them.

- Accountability: audits, performance evaluation, codes of conduct: statements of values, roles, obligations.

- Education and training: supportive public service conditions: decent pay and security.

- Ethics co-ordination: to make sure similar standards of conduct apply across the board.

- Civic society: a culture which acts as a watchdog over government activities.

All this may sound self-evident - no one is going to say that it is a bad thing to have accountability for people in public service - but the fact that it needs to be said itself speaks volumes. Voters clearly do not trust governments, or politicians like Tony Blair would not bang that to the top of their agendas. It is interesting that political commitment is number one on the OECD list. But saying that is the easy bit. The hard bit comes when a government makes a mistake. Does it admit it and learn from it? Are we mature enough to accept and respect that honesty? Or will be just carry on jeering while they bluster?

Comments