Dear PPMA friends

This week Karen participated in a panel session on ethics at Solace Summit in Birmingham. Ethics and standards in public life continue to be on the agenda given the current political difficulties the country is facing with Brexit. In this post Karen tells us about her experiences this week. Enjoy the read.

Cry God for Harry Pearce…

For those of a particular age and a taste in Spy Dramas, Sir Harry Pearce is the eponymous hero of Spooks. The steady, principled, cunning, honest, ruthless, brave and honourable head of MI5’s Section D was a fictional hero for the times.

I fancy we could do with him now. It’s hard to find genuine heroes these days. I headed up to Solace Summit earlier this week to participate in a Panel on Ethics at Solace Summit this week, not quite knowing what to expect. But hoping to find a hero along the way.

I arrived to a great atmosphere, lots of energy and camaraderie and the opportunity to say hello to old friends. It was really heartening to see so many Chief Executives and Senior Leaders of Local Public Services attend the session on ethics. It’s abundantly clear that standards in public life in general are on the minds of our most senior leaders.

The ethics stuff, myth or reality?

Joanne Roney, CEX at Manchester City Council and Solace Lead for Leadership chaired the panel. For those of you who might have wondered what would happen with the departure of Jo Miller – fear not. One inimitable woman has replaced the other.

Other panel members were Jacqui McKinley, Chief Executive, Centre for Public Scrutiny and Trudy Birtwell, Head of Organisational Development, Solace.

It’s worth a reminder that at its simplest, ethics is a system of moral principles. Ethics are applied to many areas of life and are typical the academic purview of moral philosophy.  In the workplace we typically understand ethics to be our values.

Jacqui has a really fascinating role and perspective on ethics, working as her organisation does on scrutiny and governance mechanisms. Often CfPS are called in by organisations to ‘sort out our process’, but as she rightly says you can’t divorce ethics from people. You can’t encapsulate ethics in a process as if it was an inert 2-dimensional substance. She reminded all of us that we work for social purpose organisations. I thought that was a fabulous way to describe all of us working across public services. It chimes very much with the public service ethos that many of us privileged to be working in the sector, cite as the very reason why we work in it.

Jacqui had an interesting perspective that 25 years ago ethics would have been seen as the easy bit in the context of a CEX role. We’d have followed our policy with not too much trouble and little expectation that ethics would become such an integral part of the day job. However, the advent of increased scrutiny, austerity, social media and so on means that actual and perceived ethical lapses are much more visible. And the accompanying commentary from people both qualified and unqualified to comment is powerfully amplified.

The upside of this is that it tells us that ethics clearly matter even if we don’t all have a clear understanding of what they mean. And arguably society’s response to public sector lapses is more powerfully felt because all of us expect better. As you can imagine, the current climate in British politics was also much on our minds.

I’d like to think that Sir Harry would probably be charging Parliament with a copy of the Nolan Principles on a daily basis. He might also stop off at media organisations along the way too.

The workforce stuff: do unto others

It’s worth a reminder of the Nolan Principles themselves. You can find much more information about them, and the work of the Committee for Standards in Public Life here. Here are the 7:

  • Selflessness
  • Integrity
  • Objectivity
  • Accountability
  • Openness
  • Honesty
  • Leadership

These are blindingly obvious but the fact that we need a reminder 25 (yes 25!) years on is very telling. The challenge however in Local Government is that unlike Health, Central Government etc, there isn’t one model of leadership, one set of values etc. And because we all want to best represent, define and shape our places, we can spend much more time shaping these than we do ensuring they are implemented in a sustainable way. That isn’t sustainable or even credible.

Actions and inaction have consequences

From a workforce perspective, we all know – whether we are HR & OD professionals or not, that how we are treated and our experience of how the organisation treats others impacts the degree to which we are engaged with our organisations. Treating people differently to your stated values has a profoundly corrosive effect. A cursory view of social media channels throws up plenty of quotes from academics, poets, artists, seers about the consequence of the way we treat others. We see that day in and day out.

Within PPMA, we are increasingly more aware of the relationship between leadership, employee engagement, wellbeing and productivity. This isn’t fluffy OD, this is hard HR & OD as we discussed at Annual Conference this year. Gathering data is less of a challenge than it once was thankfully. For example, the Boundless Happiness Survey found that “almost nine in 10 employees feel that they work better and are more productive when they’re happier and less stressed”.  You can read more about that work and other scientific work here.

From a workforce perspective then, Chief Executives and their Senior Leadership Teams and their HR & OD colleagues need to ensure that the focus on leadership and values is absolutely critical. And more importantly, wherever we find that our values are not upheld that we address it straight away. We have to walk our walk and talk out talk. Attending a training course is utterly meaningless and a waste of money if you don’t plan on following up on it.

A standard approach for local public services?

This brings me on to Trudy’s contribution at Panel. Over the last 6 months or so, she has been working hard on behalf of Solace Board and the Solace Membership community to develop a CPD programme for leadership and management.

It’s a work in progress and a great start. The model has benefited from the great input by Professor Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe’s Real World Group. Although there are a multitude of CPD models available Trudy’s work is an important contribution to provide Local Government colleagues with a consistent framework. Defining a single model for local public services is a thankless task but she has made a great success of it. This CPD model sits alongside the CPD frameworks that many of us will work to in our daily professions. E.g., finance, legal, housing, social work and HR professional body membership requirements will still stand.

The CPD model will be rolled out following Solace Summit, so I strongly encourage PPMA Local Gov members to look out for that on the Solace website.

We had great contributions from our audience – that’s always great.  Anyone leading a presentation/panel knows the secret horror of no-one asking a question!  My sense is that we reached a consensus that this stuff is critical, we’re not getting it completely right now, but that we know we have to place ethics/value front and centre.

 Honouring our North Stars – find your Sir Harry’s and cherish them

There are some absolutely amazing Chief Executives across local public services. I felt really cheered by that. But it’s important the we all recognise the pressures they are under and the ethical challenges that they face every day. It can be a profoundly lonely role and it’s so important that HR & OD leads make time and effort to build honest, open, productive relationships. We can be a great source of support – as well as a pain in the neck when we need to raise difficult issues. But, the men and women who lead our organisations deserve our care as much as anyone else – if not more.

Sometimes it’s hard to put into words what this ethics stuff means. But I’d bet a monthly mortgage payment that all of us have an example of someone who consistently exemplifies the best of us, particularly in challenging circumstances.

These North Stars are those who by their light, constancy and dependability inspire faith and confidence in a future that is worthy of us. If we are really lucky, we know more than one. The really smart people surround themselves with the best in their fields across all disciplines – and that’s a lesson in and of itself.

On the day I spoke at Solace Summit a towering North Star left this earth. United States Congressman Elijah Eugene Cummings (D), who represented Maryland’s 7th District died, far too young aged 68. He was also the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee and still signing subpoenas the day before he died in a hospice at Johns Hopkins. In a very troubled political climate his clarion calls for truth, equality, justice, humanity, compassion and love have echoed loudly. His is a profoundly sad loss.

But he is also someone to aspire to and perhaps that aspiration is what delivers us tomorrow’s North Stars.