Standards in Public life - Whatever happened to the Nolan Principles?

Prospective Tory party leader and PM candidate Boris Johnson refuses to respond to concerns about his private life claiming a right to expect privacy. We can argue about whether PM candidates in the public eye are ‘normal citizens with citizens’ rights to privacy’ for these purposes, and where the public/ private boundaries and interests are, but he and many others are accountable as public servants. It is timely to consider what standards of behaviour the public has a right to expect from them.

The question of acceptable behaviour in public office is as old as politics but in 1994, the UK government established a Committee on Standards in Public Life to make recommendations to improve standards of behaviour. It established the seven principles of public life, known as the “Nolan Principles”.  In  2013 Leading Governance Ltd a company supporting the development of governance processes wrote “The Nolan principles have weathered the last 20 years well. We’d consider them a timeless classic”.  

They are:-

  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.
  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.

These principles remain valid, especially so as some politicians appear to have allowed them to fall into disuse.

There have been several recent events that illustrate some of the worst of our current political culture, including the mistreatment of the environmental protesters at the Mansion House, and the advent of fake news - however prevalent you believe it to be - gives us all concern.   Perhaps it's time to add two more standards that are perhaps more modern and specific.

  1. Respect for and valuing individuals including their human rights, personal space, autonomy, dignity and sense of identity. 
  2. Due diligence with respect to evidence and a duty to perform reasonable comprehensive research with reflective judgement before representing or denying something as a fact.

High standards in public life are as essential as ever, perhaps more so if ‘timeless governance classics’ are being eroded as some of those in power disregard them. Of course proportionality matters. There are errors, minor and major transgressions all of which can be mitigated or absolved by an apology and a correction. However, citing the evidence, severe and intransigent infringements of these accepted standards for personal or political advantage should be called out by their name:- ‘Corruption’.

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