The Committee on Standards in Public Life is maintaining a close watch on standards issues arising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chair of the Committee’s Research Advisory Board, Professor Mark Philp, discusses how the Nolan Principles can be used to help negotiate the challenges we face when making decisions during the COVID-19 crisis.

Recognising the unique and unprecedented nature of the challenge for the public sector, continuing to uphold the Seven Principles of Public Life is vital to maintaining trust in government and our institutions throughout this crisis. The Committee will not be considering the government’s practical response to the crisis, e.g. the availability of PPE or length of lockdown, but rather monitoring any impact on standards and the Nolan Principles.

Committee on Standards in Public Office

Committee on Standards in Public Office

Some decisions are not difficult. If there is a choice between A and B and A gives us everything B does plus something else, then we tend to prefer A. As choice becomes more complex, decisions get harder. Where two choices have different attributes, you need to compare the relative value of the different components to make the best decision.

When some people benefit more or some are disadvantaged by decisions, we risk major conflict.

This is where we need to clarify choices, present options, and negotiate solutions that involve compromises between the different interests and values at stake.

Solutions tend to be achieved when people accept a common set of standards by which to negotiate and resolve their disagreements. In the UK, there has been a longstanding commitment by those in public life to abide by a set of principles formally articulated in 1995 by Lord Nolan and the Committee on Standards in Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

If those principles underlie our institutions and the practices by which we resolve disagreements and order our society, what do we do when there seem to be tensions between the principles themselves or uncertainties about how to apply them? That is not a hypothetical question.

In the current crisis, the government and those making key decisions with respect to public services can face extremely difficult and complex choices in knowing what the principles demand from them.

Image of Corona virus


This is clear even in more local examples, which can function as a metaphor for the wider picture. For example, the managers of care homes know they need to maintain both staff and residents’ morale, and to show leadership by demonstrating commitment to their welfare. But they must also be realistic and open about the challenges they face.

They have to consider the welfare of both their residents and their staff and have to plan for a range of scenarios that they very much hope they will not have to confront. They have to ensure that their staff do not risk exhaustion and increased vulnerability, and they have to consider how to manage the anxieties of their residents.

They may also be accountable to a central office concerned about staffing costs and the expense of additional equipment, such as PPE.

The relatives of those they have in their care may also be making demands for clarity about how they will be cared for should an outbreak occur. If their staff stay locked down within the care home, they will be using bed space; if they go home, they risk bringing in the virus. Because empty beds are costly, the manager will be subject to pressure to take people being discharged from hospitals after non-COVID-19 treatment, but any new resident also risks inadvertently introducing the infection. Self-testing is not straight-forward and may be especially difficult where staff have little training and where they are testing new residents who may also be disorientated or suffer from dementia.

Most care homes work with only a minimum ratio of nursing staff with the appropriate training; regular testing may mean the home will have to hire additional care workers when staff are forced to self-isolate. The manager also knows they will be held to account for the decisions they make.

Because most local authorities rely on private providers for care homes, we might think this is not a situation in which to invoke the Nolan Principles, but the Government clarified in Parliament that these standards apply to all those delivering public services on behalf of the taxpayer.

Whatever the sector, we cannot pretend that the principles provide absolutely clear and unambiguous guidance to achieve the ideal outcome. They offer a set of tools, not a set of answers. In the current crisis care home managers are faced with urgent practical problems, that are rooted in the complex arrangements of the homes they run, with their own systems and institutional structures, and in the personal relationships they have built up with staff, residents, and the wider community. The implications of the principles have to be teased out in and for that particular context but there are three things we know that should help us to appreciate their value:

  1. The first is that we need to apply them thoughtfully. Principles do not give us a fail-safe set of prescriptions, and we need to reflect on how to balance their demands to resolve apparent tensions. Doing this can be difficult; it is rarely something that most people get much training in, but it is integral to taking their responsibilities seriously.
  2. The second is that individual judgment is fallible, and it does not get less fallible under pressure. Collective judgment is also far from perfect, but talking things through with people who might have different and challenging perspectives ensures we don’t slip into ‘silos’ or defensive posturing. Talking things through in the light of the principles will help clarify at least some responsibilities and options. Being as open and honest as we can be; being aware of one’s lines of accountability and of the need to have a reasoned defense of one’s choices; trying to make decisions that are as much rooted in evidence and as objective as they can be; and weighing carefully the reasonableness of our expectations of others and the demands that we place on people’s selflessness – these are all things that someone who tries to act with integrity and leadership will do. It is not a good thing to be doing it for the first time in a crisis, but that merely underlines how important it is that such discussions be initiated in induction and training of staff.
  3. The third thing to say is that the principles do not condone the imposition of authority. They are a part of our mutual recognition of the importance of fairness and legitimacy. They underlie our shared understanding of how to solve problems in ways that are fair and equitable and can carry the consent even of those who, in one instance or another, might be losers by it. That they can raise complex challenges means that it is not only reasonable but essential that they should be the subject of wide and on-going deliberation that is open, honest and not hostage to the interests of particular groups, individuals or organisations. That may seem like a tall order, but the CSPL’s experience is that the public are very much up for that challenge, have a great deal to contribute, and can very much see where the principles are coming from.

Hard choices in crises need not break communities.

The seven principles of public life provide us with a set of tools for us to negotiate the challenges we face as we make difficult decisions in these testing times. If we use them deliberatively to steer our way, they can play an essential part in binding us together as a society.

This article contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.