Commentary: Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water: Building the Case for a Standards Framework in Local Government in England

Published date01 January 2014
Date01 January 2014
Gary Hickey has more than a decade’s
experience working in the f‌i eld of ethics
and corruption. This work includes com-
missioning research and ensuring effective
knowledge transfer for Standards for
England, regulating ethical standards in
local government in England; undertaking
an integrity study of the United Kingdom
for Transparency International, and work-
ing as consultant for the Council of Europe
on a project to promote ethics in the public
sector in Turkey.
84 Public Administration Review • January | February 2014
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 1, pp. 84–85. © 2013 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12168.
Gary Hickey
Transparency International, United Kingdom
Given that Alan Lawton and Michael
Macaulay’s article is concerned with eth-
ics, I should begin by declaring an interest:
I worked, for several years, for the local government
ethical standards regulator, Standards for England
(formerly the Standards Board for England), and was
responsible for commissioning the research reported
on in their article “Localism in Practice: Investigating
Citizen Participation and Good Governance in Local
Government Standards of Conduct.
It is easy to forget amongst the criticisms that the
standards framework created by the 2001 Local
Government Act (and subsequently revised by the
2007 Local Government and Public Involvement in
Health Act and then abolished by the Localism Act
2011) was too bureaucratic, overengineered, and
cumbersome that there were some success stories,
too.  is article is welcome in that it helps us begin
to build an alternative narrative about the post-2001
standards framework in local government in England.
It provides evidence of the diversity of functions that
standards committees performed and the role that
they played in ensuring ef‌f ective ethical governance,
accountability, and enhanced public participation in
local democracy.  e incoming coalition government
in 2010, in its haste to “abolish the Standards Board
framework,” overlooked much of the good work and
benef‌i ts of the ethical standards framework and, in
particular, standards committees. Indeed, the abolition
of the standards framework has raised concern among
organizations such as Transparency International and
the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Evidence
outlining some of the benef‌i ts of the framework, such
as that presented in this article, could and should be
used to build the case for a robust standards frame-
work for local government in England.
e authors highlight the role that an integrity
framework can play in enhancing local democracy and
ensuring the accountability of politicians. Indeed, lest
we forget, the framework was established, in part, to
increase conf‌i dence in local democracy.  e rationale
was that, at a time when conf‌i dence in the integrity
of politicians (both national and local) had deterio-
rated and solutions were being sought to address low
voter turnout in elections and falling political party
membership, ensuring conf‌i dence in the integrity
of politicians would lead to greater participation in
local democracy.  e researchers found that ensuring
that independent members of the public were part of
standards committees played a role in enabling the
development of a more active citizenry. As the authors
note, standards committees gave citizens a genuine
participative role in local democracy and in holding
politicians to account.
Previous incidents of corrupt and unethical behavior
were also a driving force behind the development of
an ethical standards framework in local government
in England. It could be argued that, to some extent,
the post-2001 framework was a victim of its own
success; the absence of any major scandals during
the operation of the national framework enabled an
incoming Conservative minister for communities and
local government who was committed to slashing
regulation and cost at the time of an economic crisis
to dismantle what was perceived as a New Labour
construction. However, such a view is hard to sub-
stantiate unequivocally and ignores the various f‌l aws
within the framework highlighted by Standards for
England’s own review: the investigative track that was
hard to stop, the cumbersome framework, and the
trivial complaints, as well as the absence of any design
principles for the framework.
It may be, of course, that the greater discretion over
integrity arrangements af‌f orded by the Localism Act
2011 will lead to even more innovation in local integ-
rity arrangements. Further research would be much
welcomed.  e concern, though, is that the Localism
Act 2011 has relegated the importance of ethics and
is promoting too much of a voluntary and informal
approach to ethics issues. We should always look at
ways of ensuring a swift, proportionate, and ef‌f‌i cient
system for holding politicians to account for any
rowing the Baby Out with the Bath Water: Building
the Case for a Standards Framework in Local Government
in England

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