CHAPTER THREE : DEFINING THE ETHOS
47. In the new and challenging climate, the public
service ethos cannot be taken for granted. To be credible, it
needs to be renewed and strengthened so that it sets out clearly
the aspirations society now has for its public services. It needs
to be built into the new structures that are being developed for
public services, and it must be actively cultivated and promoted
in the institutions and individuals, both private and public sector,
which provide those services. In this Chapter, therefore, we consider
the possible components of a restated and updated public service
ethos. We start with some of the principles set out by the Government.
The Government's Approach
48. The Government has made some progress in giving
more substance to the brief references to the ethos of public
service made in Prime Ministerial speeches on reform. Charles
Clarke MP, Minister without Portfolio, paid tribute to the continuing
force of the ethos in a Foreword to a New Local Government Network
pamphlet in May 2002, declaring that "Reform must always
respect the powerful public service ethos and it must acknowledge
the contribution and skills of those who now work in the public
sector. The ethos of public service is as intrinsic to public
service as the practice itself, helping to create and manage the
expectations and aspirations of all stakeholders".
In a pamphlet of March 2002 aimed at public service workers, "Reforming
our Public Services: Principles into Practice", the Government
refers to a "partnership approach based on a shared ethos
It also mentions the "significant ways in which the private
sector can learn from the public sector, not least the ethos of
trust that has been developed between many teachers and parents
or between doctors, nurses and patients, as well as the importance
of treating staff fairly".
The reference to the importance of "trust" recalls one
of the most prominent parts of the traditional ethos that we identified
in Chapter One.
Accountability and the Government:
49. On the other hand, when it turns to another essential
part of the ethos, the accountability of public services, the
Government's pamphlet is rather less clear. This suggests that
there are unresolved issues within Government:
"There is an important debate to be
had about how to reconcile the organisational need for services
to be more devolved and flexibly delivered, against the importance
of political accountability. Devolving or even delegating power
to a more local level may seem sensible, but is not easy in circumstances
where individual Ministers have been held responsible for very
detailed matters of service delivery. At the same time, public
services cannot simply be made accountable to their customers
when their democratic accountability is to Parliament, or to the
local town hall. Yet giving front-line workers greater responsibility
to shape responsive local services is essential to securing high
standards for all".
50. We agree with the Government's recognition that
services should be democratically accountable as well as user-focused,
and acknowledge the problems faced by Ministers who find it hard
to "let go" when the media attack them for every detailed
failingreal or perceivedin public services everywhere.
But we believe that the role of local and regional representatives
is far more important than the pamphlet suggests (a view reflected
in the recent White Papers on local government and regional government,
which stress the importance of active local and regional democratic
51. The Government is making welcome progress towards
explaining its vision of public service, but it has not yet provided
a coherent framework for action.
Making the Ethos Clearer
52. It is time for more clarity. It is also time
to move from the unwritten traditional ethos to a clearer and
more explicit way of explaining public service values, one that
may be more suited to times of rapid change. We believe it is
possible to preserve the best features of the traditional ethos
while taking full and proper account of the new environment. The
new public service approach should include all aspects of the
traditional version discussed in Chapter One, but it should now
also take account of the need to uphold that ethos in the public
service activities of private, profit-making companies and voluntary
and third sector organisations as well as in public bodies.
53. Michael Jacobs, General Secretary of the Fabian
Society, advocated the development of a public service ethos which
he described as a "code of conduct or similar which set out
exactly what the community expects of public services, and how
public servants should behave".
We see merit in this suggestion.
54. We believe that the Government should state
more clearly the principles underlying public service and its
reform programme, and put them in a Public Service Code. This
should be a summary of its approach, its own version of the public
service ethos, relevant to changing circumstances and the intensified
demand for excellence in services, but robust in upholding the
intrinsic nature of a public service and its traditional values.
The Code should be short, simple and aspirational. Its components
should include the standards to be reached in ethical behaviour,
in service delivery, in administrative competence and in democratic
accountability. The six principles we suggest at paragraph 74
below seem to us to include the most important points of such
a Code, although they are undoubtedly capable of further refinement.
55. The Code should be subject to Parliamentary
approval, and then should be adopted by all bodies, public, private
and voluntary sector, which provide public services.
Components of the Public Service
56. We believe that the new Code should have a number
of key components. Below we suggest what these might be:
(i) Ethical Behaviour
57. The Seven Principles of Public Life developed
by the Committee on Standards in Public Life have now been widely
incorporated into the rules governing public bodies. They should
be the ethical cornerstone of the new approach. We also observe
that the success of the Seven Principles, which are part of the
code of conduct for many public bodies in the UK and abroad, demonstrates
the value of a simple statement of the foundations of public service
standards. We believe that the Code should build on them.
(ii) Holding Providers to Account
58. We are now seeing the emergence of the outlines
of a more considered approach to the issues of accountability
raised by private involvement in public services. The IPPR Commission
on Public Private Partnerships proposed a series of measures to
make partnerships more accountable. These included calls for:
- more explicit statements in partnership contracts
of the responsibility of each partner;
- contracts which set out clearly the actions that
public purchasers can take to enforce agreed terms against private
- greater clarity about the status and areas of
competence of partnership boards and other decision-making bodies
set up under PPP arrangements.
59. This demand for stronger democratic accountability
was echoed by many of our witnesses. The Local Government Information
Unit (LGIU) called for local government scrutiny committees to
be involved in the whole process of local PFIs and PPPs. This
scrutiny would extend from the beginning of the process through
outline business cases to implementation and monitoring. They
recommend that the tests of accountability devised by Democratic
Audit for quangos should be applied to partnership bodies. This
would mean that they would be required to hold a public Annual
General Meeting, produce an annual report, and give the public
access to meetings.
60. The LGIU also argued that it was difficult to
ensure accountability by means of contracts, especially when companies
involved in long-term PFIs were taken over or merged with other
firms. This seems to us to be an issue that needs very careful
consideration, especially when contracts are set for up to 30
years. However, if such long-term contracting becomes the norm,
we believe that there are strong arguments for using the precision
and relative certainty of contracts to enshrine the values of
61. The possibilities of innovative forms of contract
are demonstrated by one of the most interesting recent developments
in local governmentthe introduction of flexible framework
agreements, which operate over a long period and have short-term
contracts within them. These allow for long-term planning but
do not tie the authorities to detailed contractual terms over
20 or 30 years. It is too early to say how these will turn out,
but they have the potential to combine the public service ethos
with private sector efficiency.
62. Capita, one of the main commercial public service
providers, gave us some examples of mechanisms which have been
established to hold public-private partnerships to account. Among
these were "partnership boards" in which they were jointly
involved with local authorities in Blackburn with Darwen and in
Norfolk. We were
not able to judge from this evidence whether these partnership
boards adequately guarantee propriety and democratic accountability.
The quality of governance provided by these relatively informal
bodies should be scrutinised carefully by local authorities and
by central government.
63. However, Capita also recognised the need to strengthen
the national framework of accountability, calling on the private
sector and government jointly to: "Develop new forms of governance
and accountability models for public-private partnerships, which
strengthen democratic accountability and stakeholder accountability
whilst protecting commercial accountability".
64. The FDA civil service union recommended that
"PPP or similar vehicles must be developed within a framework
of greater transparency and accountability". In its view
"all too often private provision appears to be being used
by politicians to shield themselves from responsibility for service
recent events on the railways and elsewhere have demonstrated,
such "shields" are of course illusory.
65. There are, we believe, a number of powerful arguments
in favour of the development of new forms of accountability in
public services of this kind, which recognise and even encourage
diversity of provision while helping to ensure propriety, fairness
and traditional public service standards. Too much, or inappropriate,
accountability can be oppressive, and disproportionate attention
to process over product can damage the purpose of an organisation;
but there has to be enough accountability to meet the requirements
of a public service. Without it, public services can become dangerously
separated from the electorate and their representatives, either
by long contracts that cannot be altered, or by arm's length bodies
that have no democratic mandate. The risk, then, is that voting
may eventually come to appear futile.
(iii) Being Open with the Public
66. Transparency is another theme that comes through
strongly. The FDA criticised government on this score: "All
too often, [PPP or similar] proposals and detailed contracts are
shrouded by a catch-all of "commercial in confidence"
which appears to be being deliberately used by ministers to prevent
scrutiny". They continue: "We see no reason whatsoever
why contracts awarded to the private sector for the delivery of
public services should not as a matter of policy be open to public
67. The IPPR Commission recommended a range of measures
to improve transparency of public-private arrangements. These
included public availability of partnerships' performance data,
more mandatory disclosure of PFI information, and greater statutory
powers for the National Audit Office to access information on
private providers where they hold substantial public sector contracts.
The Local Government Information Unit supported these proposals,
advocating also the public declaration of interests by contractors.
They urged "equivalent standards of probity for contractors
providing public services as those that apply in central and local
We consider that transparency should be integral to the provision
of public services, whoever the provider.
(iv) Commitment to Quality Services
68. Many of the approaches we have been examining
have been concerned solely with ethical or professional standards.
They are necessary, but not sufficient. They do not emphasise
enough the need for quality in services. The Prime Minister, on
the other hand, is at his most eloquent on this issue. Martin
Taylor was highly critical of present performance in contracting
for services, and many of our witnesses said that CCT could not
ensure quality provision. It is also worth remembering in this
context that the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms to the Civil Service
in the 19th century were not just about the ending
of patronage and cronyism but about improving performance. As
Baroness Prashar, the First Civil Service Commissioner, put it
to us: "...it is no good having an impartial Civil Service
which is incompetent".
In other words, public service values should always have service
quality at their centre.
69. We believe that there should be, as part of the
new Code, a simple form of words which expresses the need for
high quality public services. But we also believe that generalities
may not be effective enough, and that more detailed and practical
benchmarks are needed. One way forward may be to use other services
as the benchmark.
70. Michael Jacobs recommended that the Code containing
the ethos should be added to public sector contracts with private
and voluntary organisations, to ensure that they adhered not just
to the letter but to the spirit of the contracts.
We consider that the inclusion of the new code in tender documents
and contracts, as well as in public services generally, would
and should have a real effect on the way public services are delivered.
It could offer those with an interest in upholding the ideals
of public service a way of ensuring, in the courts if necessary,
that public bodies and their private contractors are acting properly
and in accordance with the public interest. Contracts between
accountable public providers and private companies would also
have to be written in such a way as to allow individuals to uphold
the public service ethos. Directly or indirectly, the Code could
apply to the work of all who are involved in public services,
enshrining their obligations as providers. It would help to prevent
the fragmentation of an integrated ideal of public service that
some see as a risk of a contract culture. In this way, contracts
could ensure that the public service ethos was effectively embodied
in all that public services do. Therefore we recommend that
the Public Service Code be included in invitations to tender and
as a contract clause for public service contracts, including employment
contracts. We also believe that public service workers, especially
front-line staff, have a crucial role in bringing forward suggestions
for the improvement of service efficiency and performance, and
recommend that all public services should be required to
have in place effective mechanisms to involve staff in service
(v) Fairness to Staff and Users
71. Fairness to staff should be an axiom of public
services, just as should fairness to users. The question of the
treatment of staff transferred from the public to the private
sectors, and of those who join those private firms later, has
been the subject of considerable debate. There has been much criticism
of the idea of a two-tier or even three-tier workforce in which
there are radically different terms and conditions for workers
who are doing the same job. We believe that it is impossible for
the public service ethos, with its underlying principles of impartiality
and fairness, to be upheld when there are such arbitrary distinctions
between workers. It is not good management for companies to profit
from such a flouting of basic principles. More flexible working
arrangements are one thing; but eroding basic rights is quite
another. The recent announcement by the DTLR, and an agreement
between the Department of Health and UNISON allowing for secondment
rather than wholesale transfer of NHS staff, represents substantial
progress in this front, but the Public Service Code should also
underline the importance of the wider principle. There are a number
of possible applications; the Government has long pledged to bring
forward a Civil Service Bill, although this is an area where delivery
has not yet matched the promise. That would be a useful further
vehicle for the Public Service Code. We recommend that the
Public Service Code should be considered for inclusion in the
proposed Civil Service Bill.
(vi) Good Administration, Reliability
72. As part of the new approach, we consider there
should be a statement of the obligation on public servants to
achieve the highest standards of administration. There is a precedent
from the European Union that might well be worth following. In
2001 the European Parliament approved a Code of Good Administrative
Behaviour which applies to all European institutions. It is included
among the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union
announced at the Nice Summit in December 2000.
Among other things, this Code, drafted by the European Ombudsman,
states that "Every person has the right to have his or her
affairs handled impartially, fairly and within a reasonable time
by the institutions and bodies of the Union". The right includes"the
right of every person to be heard, before any individual measure
which would affect him or her adversely is taken" and "the
obligation of the administration to give reasons for its decisions".
We see great value in such a statement of good administrative
practice, as a clear standard for public servants as well as for
those they serve. Such a statement would also introduce a notion
of redress for maladministration in public services which should
command respect from private and voluntary sector as well as public
sector providers (though the legal and contractual implications
of such a notion would need to be carefully considered).
73. Similar considerations apply to reliability and
safety. While a commercial service can be withdrawn when profitability
demands it, those who provide public services have to provide
them whenever they are required, to anybody who wants them. Failures
in private services mean that customers may choose to move their
custom: failures in public services can mean lives disrupted,
and even lost. Reliability and safety have to be integral to any
new public service ethos.
74. Bearing in mind these requirements, we set out below our recommendations
for a new Public Service Code, and make some suggestions about
A Public Service Code
75. People and organisations providing public services should commit themselves to these principles:
- Observe at all times the ethical standards expected of public servants and public service bodies, including the Seven Principles of Public Life
- Make themselves accountable through elected representatives and other means for their policies and performance, with the highest standards of openness and transparency.
- Aim to deliver public services that match in quality the best private equivalents, including standards of customer care. Where there is no private sector equivalent, best practice in the public sector should be matched.
- Treat public service workers and users fairly and equitably, and involve them as much as possible in service issues.
- Respect at all times the right of the citizen to good administration as set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and his or her right to safe, reliable public services. Proper redress should be made where maladministration has taken place.
- Remember at all times that public service means serving the public, not serving the interests of those who provide the service, and work collaboratively with others to this end.
'Advancing a new public service ethos' New Local Government Network
May 2002 Back
'Reforming our Public Services: Principles into Practice' OPSR
March 2002 p 28 Back
Ibid, p 26 Back
Ibid, p 9 Back
HC 263-II, PSR 37 Back
'Building Better Partnerships' IPPR Commission on PPPs June 2001
Chapter 10 Back
HC 263-II, PSR 15 Back
Ibid, PSR 14 Back
HC 263-II, PSR 8 Back
Ibid, PSR 13 Back
Ibid, PSR 15 Back
'Public Appointments and Patronage' Minutes of Evidence 2001-02
HC 686-vi, Q618 Back
HC 263-II, PSR 37 Back
'Article 41 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU' Official
Journal of the European Communities 2000 364/1 Back