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Digital ethics collection | Article

Public standards and ethical practice

Authored by William Barker, Martin Ferguson

This page focuses on the work of the on the Principles of Public Life, Local Government Ethical Standards, Local Government Ombudsman’s Code the core Ethical Standards for Providers of Public Services and emerging thinking on Artificial Intelligence with regards to Public Standards and Public Sector Procurement.

Principles of public life

The Seven Principles of Public Life outline the ethical standards those working in the public sector are expected to adhere to. They were first set out by Lord Nolan in 1995 in the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and they are included in a range of Codes of Conduct across public life.

This includes all those who are elected or appointed to public office, nationally and locally, and all people appointed to work in the Civil Service, local government the police, courts and probation services, non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), and in the health, education, social and care services. All public office-holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources. The principles also apply to all those in other sectors delivering public services.

  • Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
  • Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
  • Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
  • Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
  • Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
  • Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful.
  • Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

Best Practice in Local government ethical standards

As part of its wider remit the committee has developed a set of recommended ethical best practice approaches that apply both to elected members and officials which local authorities are encouraged to adopt as follows: –

  • Best practice 1: Local authorities should include prohibitions on bullying and harassment in codes of conduct. These should include a definition of bullying and harassment, supplemented with a list of examples of the sort of behaviour covered by such a definition.
  • Best practice 2: Councils should include provisions in their code of conduct requiring councillors to comply with any formal standards investigation, and prohibiting trivial or
  • malicious allegations by councillors.
  • Best practice 3: Principal authorities should review their code of conduct each year and regularly seek, where possible, the views of the public, community organisations and
  • neighbouring authorities.
  • Best practice 4: An authority’s code should be readily accessible to both councillors and the public, in a prominent position on a council’s website and available in council premises.
  • Best practice 5: Local authorities should update their gifts and hospitality register at least once per quarter, and publish it in an accessible format, such as CSV.
  • Best practice 6: Councils should publish a clear and straightforward public interest test against which allegations are filtered.
  • Best practice 7: Local authorities should have access to at least two Independent Persons.
  • Best practice 8: An Independent Person should be consulted as to whether to undertake a formal investigation on an allegation, and should be given the option to review and comment on allegations which the responsible officer is minded to dismiss as being without merit, vexatious, or trivial.
  • Best practice 9: Where a local authority makes a decision on an allegation of misconduct following a formal investigation, a decision notice should be published as soon as possible on its website, including a brief statement of facts, the provisions of the code engaged by the allegations, the view of the Independent Person, the reasoning of the decision-maker, and any sanction applied.
  • Best practice 10: A local authority should have straightforward and accessible guidance on its website on how to make a complaint under the code of conduct, the process for handling complaints, and estimated timescales for investigations and outcomes.
  • Best practice 11: Formal standards complaints about the conduct of a parish councillor towards a clerk should be made by the chair or by the parish council as a whole, rather than the clerk in all but exceptional circumstances.
  • Best practice 12: Monitoring Officers’ roles should include providing advice, support and management of investigations and adjudications on alleged breaches to parish councils within the remit of the principal authority. They should be provided with adequate training, corporate support and resources to undertake this work.
  • Best practice 13: A local authority should have procedures in place to address any conflicts of interest when undertaking a standards investigation. Possible steps should include asking the Monitoring Officer from a different authority to undertake the investigation.
  • Best practice 14: Councils should report on separate bodies they have set up or which they own as part of their annual governance statement, and give a full picture of their relationship with those bodies. Separate bodies created by local authorities should abide by the Nolan principle of openness, and publish their board agendas and minutes and annual reports in an accessible place.
  • Best practice 15: Senior officers should meet regularly with political group leaders or group whips to discuss standards issues.

As a follow-up to this work the Local Government Association has published non-mandatory, model code of conduct and the CSPL has published a progress report based on the responses received from local authorities, many of whom have used the 15 ethical best practices to review and assess their own standards regimes.

Local Government Ombudsman: Principles of good administrative practice

Closely aligned to this work is the Local Government Ombudsman: Principles of good administrative practice which sets out six areas of best practice for local government and social care organisations to follows:

Getting it right

  • Following the law and taking the rights of those concerned into account
  • Following the organisation’s policy and guidance
  • Taking proper account of established good practice
  • Providing effective services, using appropriately trained and competent staff
  • Taking reasonable, timely decisions, based on all relevant considerations

2. Being service-user focused

  • Ensuring people can access services easily, including those needing reasonable adjustments
  • Informing service users what they can expect and what the organisation expects of them
  • Keeping to commitments, including any published service standards
  • Dealing with people helpfully, promptly and sensitively, taking account of their individual circumstances
  • Responding to service users’ needs flexibly and, where appropriate, coordinating a response with other service providers
  • Recognising and respecting the diversity of service users and adopting an inclusive approach

3. Being open and accountable

  • Being open and clear about policies and procedures and ensuring information, and any advice
  • provided, is clear, accurate and complete
  • Stating the criteria for decision making and giving reasons for decisions
  • Handling information properly and appropriately
  • Keeping proper and appropriate records
  • Taking responsibility for actions

4. Acting fairly and proportionately

  • Being impartial and treating people with respect and courtesy
  • Treating people without unlawful discrimination or prejudice, and ensuring no conflict of interests
  • Dealing with people and issues objectively and consistently
  • Ensuring decisions and actions are proportionate, appropriate and fair

5. Putting things right

  • Acknowledging mistakes and apologising where appropriate
  • Putting mistakes right quickly and effectively
  • Providing clear and timely information on how and when to appeal or complain
  • Operating an effective complaints procedure, which includes offering a fair and appropriate remedy when a complaint is upheld

6. Seeking continuous improvement

  • Reviewing policies and procedures regularly to ensure they are effective
  • Asking for feedback and using it to improve services and performance
  • Ensuring the organisation learns lessons from complaints and uses them to improve services and performance

Ethical standards for providers of public services

Likewise, as public services are increasingly being delivered from those outside the public sector, the Committee reviewed the expectations and assurance of ethical standards in the public service market. In its detailed report Ethical standards for providers of public services it identified five areas that any organisation providing public services must be able to demonstrate that it has in place as follows:

Principled leadership and Governance g

“The organisation needs to demonstrate that – from the top – the role of ethical standards in the delivery of public services is understood, supported and lived out. This requires ethical leadership, visible championing and actual accountability. There may be a specific person with responsibility for advising on and championing ethical issues or annual public reporting on ethical standards through an annual report, accountability or corporate social responsibility statement.”

“Any organisation should also have an appropriate governance structure in place, led by the main board (where relevant), whereby ethical risks are identified, reported, managed and resolved. Depending on the size of the organisation these could include ethics committees or other internal scrutiny mechanisms with a clear line of accountability to the main board. Appropriate governance and accountability structures can be provided for in the contract or where appropriate demonstrated by adherence to a code of practice.”

A suitable code of conduct

“Any organisation providing public services must adhere to a proportionate set of values (typically a series of Do’s and Don’ts) set out (apart from the smallest organisations) in its own code of conduct or ethics, or equivalent document. A code of conduct is one of the basic elements of a strong ethical framework.”

A culture of dialogue and challenge

“The organisation needs a culture where everyone is encouraged to question and challenge and report unethical behaviour, where complaints are respected and concerns addressed, feedback is encouraged and acted upon in order to continuously improve and whistle-blowing is seen as last resort.”

Clarity of accountability as well as transparency

“The organisation should adopt “Intelligent accountability” putting out good quality information in intelligible and adaptable formats, creating a genuine dialogue with stakeholders. This should be aimed at building a degree of trust over time in which stakeholders can see policies being influenced and changed as a result of their input and being open, particularly in relation to reporting problems and avoiding a culture of blame. “

There must also be clarity of accountability, particularly where there are complex supply chains, to enable effective holding to account especially for individuals who wish to raise questions or concerns about the services provided to them, and an effective means of redress.

Ethical capability

To establish an ethical culture, any organisation providing public services needs to embed ethical awareness in induction, progression, training and professional development. This capability is also needed, as a professional commercial requirement for those commissioning, procuring or managing contracts.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life has published an online guide for providers of public services – whether outsourced or in-house – to promote high ethical standards. The guide follows up on the Committee’s earlier report which established the importance of common standards for all those delivering public services.

Artificial Intelligence: Public Standards and Procurement

Linked to this with growing significance of emerging technologies and data in public services the Committee on Standards in Public Life has also conducted a review into Artificial Intelligence and Public Standards which sets out the following key recommendations that local public sector leaders, policy makers and practitioners are advised to adopt across their organisations and partnerships: 

Recommendations to front-line providers, both public and private, of public services

The Committee makes seven recommendations to front-line providers of public services to help establish effective risk-based governance for the use of AI.

  • Evaluating risks to public standards: Providers of public services, both public and private, should assess the potential impact of a proposed AI system on public standards at project design stage, and ensure that the design of the system mitigates any standards risks identified. Standards review will need to occur every time a substantial change to the design of an AI system is made.
  • Diversity Providers of public services, both public and private, must consciously tackle issues of bias and discrimination by ensuring they have taken into account a diverse range of behaviours, backgrounds and points of view. They must take into account the full range of diversity of the population and provide a fair and effective service.
  • Upholding responsibility Providers of public services, both public and private, should ensure that responsibility for AI systems is clearly allocated and documented, and that operators of AI systems are able to exercise their responsibility in a meaningful way.
  • Monitoring and evaluation Providers of public services, both public and private, should monitor and evaluate their AI systems to ensure they always operate as intended.
  • Establishing oversight Providers of public services, both public and private, should set oversight mechanisms that allow for their AI systems to be properly scrutinised.
  • Appeal and redress Providers of public services, both public and private, must always inform citizens of their right and method of appeal against automated and AI-assisted decisions.
  • Training and education Providers of public services, both public and private, should ensure their employees working with AI systems undergo continuous training and education.

Building on this approach the Government has developed a set of Guidelines for AI procurement which outline a set of guiding principles on how to buy AI technology, as well as insights on tackling challenges that may arise during procurement. It is the first of such guidance, and is not exhaustive.

These guidelines have been developed by the Office for AI in collaboration with the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Government Digital Service, Government Commercial Function and Crown Commercial Service. A wide range of stakeholders from industry, academia and Government Departments have helped to shape this update. The guidelines were initiated through the World Economic Forum’s ‘Unlocking public sector AI’ project.

Also, as part of the project, the Office for AI co-created the AI Procurement in a box, a toolkit to help public sector procurement professionals across the globe rethink their approaches to AI procurement.