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Striking the right balance

September 5, 2012

David Prince CBE


Re –reading Nolan’s original report I’m struck not only by its clarity but also the assumption that establishing ethical regulation would have a straightforward, positive impact on public trust.
The public surveys we’ve done don’t bear out this assumption.  And at our recent seminar on ethics and Parliament there was a sense from some that ethical regulation had got out of hand, grown like topsy since Nolan, and that this was itself adding to negative perceptions of those in public life.
Striking the right balance in ethical regulation is not always easy or obvious.  Scandals inevitably bring pressure from the media and in Westminster for more regulation and tighter controls.  Take the newest regulator – IPSA – established by Parliament in the wake of the revelations about MPs expenses.  It was criticised in the beginning for establishing an overly tough regime, and has now changed its approach in some respects in response to experience and several consultations.
Some areas of ethical regulation are going through their second or third post-Nolan life cycle.  For example, Sir David Normington as Commissioner for Public Appointments has recently revised the Code that governs public appointments to bring in a principles-based, risk–based approach.  In local government the problems of  what was already the second version of an over-wieldy standards structure have led to Ministers stripping the latest regime back to the bare minimum.
So how can we find the right balance?  How do we make risk based-regulation better at preventing and predicting failure?  What are the key things to look out for even when things seem to be going well?  What are the early warning signs that things are going adrift?  And without the ‘adrenalin rush’ of a scandal, what keeps standards on track?  How do they become and stay embedded in an organisation’s all-day, every day business?

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