Alan Doig

Only a few weeks after my recent article on addressing fraud, corruption and conflict-of-interest in local government from the enforcement and public ethics perspectives – the low road and high road approaches – the EU produced an overview report on corruption. Drawing on a series of member state country studies, the report unsurprisingly argued that corruption continued to be an issue because although most member states had the necessary laws and institutions in place, they were not entirely effective.

This was apparently because ‘anti-corruption rules are not always vigorously enforced, systemic problems are not tackled effectively enough, and the relevant institutions do not always have sufficient capacity to enforce the rules. Declared intentions are still too distant from concrete results, and genuine political will to eradicate corruption often appears to be missing’.

While the UK report did not cover local government, such conclusions would raise pertinent comments about the abolition of the Standards Board and the Audit Commission in terms of the high road approach. Given the UK study also claimed that, ‘traditionally, the UK promotes high ethical standards in public service’ then it would be worth asking what does the abolition of the two institutions tell us about this ‘tradition’ in terms of capacity, results and will.

While is it often relatively easy to identify why public officials become involved in dishonesty – and my next blog will talk about ‘vigorous enforcement’ – what is of interest to those seeking to develop preventative strategies to guard against the misuse of public office is how to develop and maintain a culture of public service that promotes honesty. The objective of any prevention strategy would therefore seek to reflect a theme raised by the US National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice over a quarter of a century ago in relation to corruption: ‘corruption has three main components that are controllable and one that is not. The three controllable ones are opportunity, incentive, and risk; the uncontrollable one is personal honesty. Many public servants over a long period of time have had the freely available opportunity to be corrupt, a large incentive to do so, and little risk of being found if they did, but have refused because ‘it wouldn’t be honest’ (Zimmerman, 1980).

It was the 1995 report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that raised the question of the ‘grey area’ of uncertainty of ‘the difference between what is right and what is wrong’ and sought responses that encouraged guidance and education in ethical conduct. Since then the Committee itself has hardly taken the lead in responding to issues of capacity and will following the abolition of the organisations. This has appeared to take place at the same time as its interest in local government waned since it suspended its inquiry into leadership and trust in local government in 2009 in order to rush after the unfolding scandal of MPs’ expenses. This inquiry has not been picked up subsequently. Despite the Committee’s 2012 concerns about ‘the inherent robustness of the new arrangements’ and its Chair’s late 2013 reiteration of 2010 comments on the new regime being ‘stripped back too far’, an inquiry into the regime and arrangements – pencilled into the Committee’s 2012-2015 strategy – yet did not appear as an agenda item on the Committee’s 2014 workplan.

Who will pick up lead responsibility for public ethics at local level is now in limbo as the government also shifts its attention to what it sees as a more immediate and, in savings terms, more tangible results-based focus on preventing and detecting losses from fraud and corruption through the low road route. Even here the prevention aspect is losing ground to investigation and enforcement; the most visible sign of this came with the abolition of the National Fraud Authority, despite its apparent role in ‘successfully’ raising awareness of fraud and improving coordination, in favour of ‘cutting economic crime’ through law enforcement.

Nevertheless this comes after the Committee on Standards in Public Life that in 2013 changed its view about ‘grey areas’ explanations of unacceptable conduct in arguing that those in public life ‘behaved inappropriately not because they were unaware of what was expected but because they did not find it expedient’. In other words, both roads need to be tackled. Failing to discourage dishonesty and promoting honesty by closing the high road is likely to see an increase of both types of misconduct on the low road, leading to a potential congestion for those charged with investigation and enforcement. The next question is thus two-fold; how is the congestion likely to be addressed and how is the high road to be re-opened?

Zimmerman, J. F. (1980), ‘Ethics in the Public Service’, Paper Presented at the Maxwell Graduate School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, July 9, 1980.

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