Explainer Series – The Nolan Principles

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The Seven Principles underpinning Public Life

In 1994 John Major, the then Prime Minister, announced the establishment of a Committee on Standards in Public Life, under the Chairmanship of Lord Nolan. It was an independent public body set up to advise the government on ethical standards across the whole of public life in the UK.

Lord Nolan established The Seven Principles of Public Life (also known as the Nolan Principles) which were introduced by the UK government in 1995 and apply to anyone who works as a public officeholder. This includes all those who are elected or appointed to public office, nationally and locally, and all people appointed to work in the Civil Service, local government, the police, courts and probation services, non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), and in the health, education, social and care services. All public officeholders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources. The principles also apply to all those in other sectors delivering public services.

The principles are:

Selflessness: decisions should be taken solely in terms of the public interest.

Integrity: individuals should avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. Actions or decisions should not be taken in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

Objectivity: actions and decisions should be taken impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

Accountability: individuals are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

Openness: actions and decisions should be made in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

Honesty: holders of public office should be truthful.

Leadership: these principles should be exhibited at all times and individuals should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

The emphasis of the Nolan Principles (‘Principles’) is on culture and behaviours, not processes, recognising the unique challenges that public office holders face in their roles. The preservation of public sympathy, trust and confidence are key considerations in the decision-making processes and should not be underestimated. There are also significant ethical expectations of those working in public office which brings added scrutiny and pressure.

Many organisations which are caught by the Principles are already process driven and bureaucratic, yet the Principles do not seek to impose additional rigid rules. Instead, they seek to help guide those in public office to do the right thing. This more subtle approach reflects the fact that the organisations are dealing primarily with people which may be why the Principles remain relevant even more than 25 years after their introduction.

This more people-based approach allows flexibility and enables organisations to adapt and respond with agility to unforeseen challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s important, however, that any temporary changes introduced to governance processes should be formalised if they remain in force.

Whereas in the corporate world board meetings are confidential, in public office, meetings are often held in public. This unique challenge of full transparency has been acknowledged and reinforces the focus of the Principles on behaviours as those charged with decision making are often “on show”.

Another difference is that companies need good governance to retain customers as consumers in the commercial world usually have a choice. Stakeholders for public entities rely on organisations for their services, be they schools or hospitals. With these differences in mind it is right that the Principles provide an alternative approach to governance to that which has been taken in the corporate codes.

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