An apolitical manifesto for public purpose organisations

04 July 2024

GGI offers some key principles for the consideration of public sector leaders, irrespective of the new government’s political ideology

The advent of a new government heralds a period of enormous change across public services as politicians strive to make their mark in the new landscape. From education to social care, the arts to sports, millions of public servants will be keenly waiting to hear how their activities are likely to be affected by the political preferences of the new incumbents.

But some things transcend political dogma. We present an apolitical manifesto of five key principles that will strengthen governance and service delivery, irrespective of the ideology of the residents at Number Ten.

1. Renewed focus on the Nolan Principles

Established in 1995, the Nolan Principles are the cornerstone of ethical standards in public office – and for private companies carrying out public duties – and have always formed a central part of GGI’s activities. The seven fundamental tenets – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership – should underpin all public service. A post-election realignment of activities gives public service leaders an opportunity to renew their commitment to these important principles, which serve as a moral compass, keeping leaders focused on the greater good rather than personal gain, and helping to ensure that trust between the public and their institutions is maintained and strengthened.

2. Subsidiarity – prioritising boards over central control

Subsidiarity – the principle that decisions should be made as close as possible to the citizens they affect – is vital for responsive and effective governance. Empowering local boards and resisting excessive central control allows for more tailored and immediate responses to community needs. This principle encourages local accountability and enhances the relevance and impact of decisions. Public sector boards should champion and fight for subsidiarity, advocating for the autonomy to address issues with the nuance and agility that central control often lacks.

3. Evidence-based decision-making

In an era of information overload and widespread misinformation, public sector boards must anchor their decisions in robust evidence. Evidence-based decision-making means using the best available data and research to inform policies and practices. This approach not only leads to more effective and efficient outcomes but also bolsters public confidence in the decisions made by their leaders. Implementing systematic methods for gathering, analysing, and applying evidence ensures that policies are both practical and resilient.

4. Constructive challenge and psychological safety

A culture of constructive challenge is essential for innovation and improvement in the public sector. Encouraging board members to question assumptions, scrutinise proposals, and debate alternatives inevitably leads to better decision-making. Public sector boards should cultivate an environment where diverse perspectives are valued, and rigorous debate is seen as a path to excellence. Key to this is reinforcing the psychological safety of everyone working for public service organisations. They must believe that they can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation, and that whistleblowers will not be muffled. Recognising and appreciating the dedication and hard work of public servants boosts morale and reinforces the integrity and honour of serving the public. Boards that prioritise psychological safety will be more cohesive, innovative, and effective.

5. Strategic thinking

In the fast-paced environment of public service, it is easy to be perpetually distracted by urgent day-to-day priorities. But effective public sector boards must also prioritise strategic thinking, keeping long-term goals in mind. This means setting a clear vision for the future, aligning current activities with that vision, and being resilient in the face of short-term pressures. Strategic thinking ensures that the board's actions contribute to sustainable, long-term success and public benefit. Striking that difficult balance between immediate demands and long-term objectives will help boards to navigate complexities more effectively and create lasting positive impact.

Governance with integrity

Reaffirming these five principles will empower public sector boards to navigate the complexities of governance with integrity and efficacy.

A renewed focus on the Nolan Principles, moving decision-making closer to the people it affects, basing those decisions on evidence, encouraging constructive challenge and promoting psychological safety, and keeping a strategic eye on long-term goals will collectively enhance the accountability, responsiveness, and overall performance of public sector institutions and build respect for their activities.

We can only hope that they help to build a public sector that is ethical, effective, and truly in service of the electorate.

Meet the author: Martin Thomas


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Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

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