Select Committee on Public Administration Seventh Report


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".[27] 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 of service".[28] 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".[29] 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: Unresolved Issues

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".[30]

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 failing—real or perceived—in 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 institutions).

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".[31] 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 Code

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 providers;

  • greater clarity about the status and areas of competence of partnership boards and other decision-making bodies set up under PPP arrangements.[32]

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.[33]

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 public service.

61. The possibilities of innovative forms of contract are demonstrated by one of the most interesting recent developments in local government—the 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.[34] 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".[35]

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 delivery".[36] As 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 scrutiny".[37]

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 government".[38] 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: " is no good having an impartial Civil Service which is incompetent".[39] 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.[40] 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 issues.

(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 and Safety

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.[41] 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 its implementation.

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.

27   'Advancing a new public service ethos' New Local Government Network May 2002 Back

28   'Reforming our Public Services: Principles into Practice' OPSR March 2002 p 28 Back

29   Ibid, p 26 Back

30   Ibid, p 9 Back

31   HC 263-II, PSR 37 Back

32   'Building Better Partnerships' IPPR Commission on PPPs June 2001 Chapter 10 Back

33   HC 263-II, PSR 15 Back

34   Ibid, PSR 14 Back

35   HC 263-II, PSR 8 Back

36   Ibid, PSR 13 Back

37   Ibid Back

38   Ibid, PSR 15 Back

39   'Public Appointments and Patronage' Minutes of Evidence 2001-02 HC 686-vi, Q618 Back

40   HC 263-II, PSR 37 Back

41   'Article 41 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU' Official Journal of the European Communities 2000 364/1 Back

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