Before Christmas, I was part of a discussion with my Permanent Secretary colleagues about Civil Service integrity. We were looking at the InCise study into civil service effectiveness. I was fascinated to learn that, while the UK Civil Service ranks 4th out of 31 countries in terms of our general performance, we are 17th for ‘integrity'. Always up for a challenge, I immediately volunteered to become the Civil Service ‘Integrity Champion’.
I have to say I was puzzled by the InCise ranking. After all, I've never met a civil servant who doesn't think integrity is important. And as I look into the data behind the rankings in more detail, I'm not completely convinced that the scoring is a fair reflection of current reality.
Be that as it may, three things have reminded me that maintaining integrity, (not to mention our other core Civil Service values, honesty, impartiality and objectivity) remains at the heart of everything we do, and is sometimes more difficult to achieve than we think.
First, recent interest in public appointments served as a reminder that to maintain the trust of those we serve – both public and ministers – we must ensure that public appointees uphold the same standards in public life that we are expected to. I would encourage everyone to familiarise themselves with the guidance on public appointments, together with the Nolan Principles.
Next up, we welcomed a new set of ministers into the Department for Education (DfE). Of course, we civil servants are well-versed in pulling together welcome packs and departmental briefings for any new minister at any time. However, our support goes well beyond carefully crafted briefing notes. What ministers want and need from us are honest opinions about the issues at stake, what underlies those issues, what the delivery challenges are, and what everyone ‘out there’ thinks about them. Ministers can’t make good decisions without that advice, even when it may be thought unpalatable. The good news is that it has been hugely impressive to see the way in which DfE staff have expertly and honestly briefed our new Secretary of State, and how much he has clearly appreciated this. Indeed, I always find the discussion much more invigorating and productive when we get all the issues out on the table.
Thirdly, I attended the Public Accounts Committee to talk about our DfE school accounts. This was my 9th appearance since taking up my post as Permanent Secretary, and I have come to relish the meetings. Of course, it is not always pleasurable to be grilled by the committee’s finest minds, and it can be embarrassing to explain a mistake or omission. But what makes it a good process is that it is exactly right that my decisions as accounting officer for an organisation which gives out over £60 billion of public funding each year should be investigated and challenged, in public, by those who the public elects to represent them. I see these meetings as a positive opportunity to explain why we're doing what we're doing, and to be held to account for our efforts to keep making improvements.
Call to arms
I'd like to end this blog with a call to arms. Whatever the official league tables say, let’s all redouble our efforts to improve the Civil Service's integrity, both collectively and individually. Whether you are working on advice for Ministers on a tricky issue, whether you are involved in making an appointment or letting a contract, or whether you are providing someone with a service, enjoy being honest and sincere, and do us all proud.