Managing Politics? Ethics Regulation and Conflicting Conceptions of “Good Conduct”

Published date01 January 2014
Date01 January 2014
Richard Cowell is researcher and
lecturer in the School of Planning and
Geography, Cardiff University. His research
interests cover theoretical and political
aspects of the relationship between public
policy and sustainable development, includ-
ing governmental strategies for resolving
sociospatial conf‌l icts. He has written widely
on issues of policy integration, public
participation, and trust, with a particular
interest in ethics regulation in English local
James Downe is a reader in public
management in the Centre for Local and
Regional Government Research, Cardiff
Business School. His current research
interests include local government perform-
ance regimes, political accountability, public
trust, and the ethical behavior of local
politicians. He has more than 10 years of
experience conducting evaluations on local
government policy and has published widely
in international journals.
Karen Morgan is lecturer and
researcher in the Gender Violence Research
Centre in the School for Policy Studies,
University of Bristol. Her research has exam-
ined domestic and/or sexual violence, social
housing provision, the ethical framework
governing local councillors in England, the
needs of homeless women, and ethical food
choices. Karen is also associate lecturer
with the Open University and serves on the
Academic Advisory Panel of an educational
charity, the Vegan Society.
Managing Politics? Ethics Regulation and Conf‌l icting Conceptions of “Good Conduct” 29
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 1, pp. 29–38. © 2013 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12135.
Richard Cowell
James Downe
Cardiff University, United Kingdom
Karen Morgan
University of Bristol, United Kingdom
Concern for fostering trust in public institutions has
prompted many governments to invest in systems of
ethics regulation, embracing various dimensions of good
governance.  is article assesses the impact of ethics
regulation on the conduct of English local politicians
using Foucauldian perspectives on government, power,
and resistance.  e research f‌i nds that ethics regulation
encountered problems when politicians resisted the models
of political identity and behavior that it was perceived
to promote. Particular concentrations of misconduct
complaints were identif‌i ed in which politicians believed
that changes to political management structures, designed
to make local governance more ef‌f ective, caused a loss of
voice for elected representatives. Ethics regulation itself
sometimes served as a device for controlling others and
ef‌f ecting resistance.  e article concludes with ref‌l ections
on how far we should expect political conduct to be man-
aged by such regulatory practices.
Across the globe, there has been growing interest
in the promotion of good governance, includ-
ing the achievement of high ethical standards
of conduct in public institutions.  is is ref‌l ected
in the widespread rolling out of codes of conduct,
statements of values, and processes for addressing
misconduct allegations (Fording, Miller, and Patton
2003; West and Davis 2011). In many countries, this
is driven by the urge to address serious cases of cor-
ruption and dishonesty. However, this enterprise often
goes much wider, as governments seek to cultivate an
array of ethical behaviors in the public sector moti-
vated by broader desires to improve public trust.
While ethics regulation has become pervasive in
Western democracies and a growing focus of pub-
lic administration research, analysis of the impacts
of such practices is underdeveloped (Helin and
Sandström 2010; Van der Wal 2011; West and Davis
2011), and existing studies have given more atten-
tion to public of‌f‌i cials than to elected politicians, who
are the focus here.  ree questions drive this article:
First, can dif‌f erent dimensions of good conduct for
politicians—such as treating others with respect,
not working for self-interest, or using institutional
resources appropriately—be promoted ef‌f ectively by
ethics regulation? Second, how do ethics regulation
and the principles of good conduct that it embodies
interact with other factors that shape how politicians
behave? Finally, are there facets of political conduct,
as an exercise in the representation of interests and
mobilization of power, that make it especially resistant
to formal ethics regulation?
England is an interesting context for the analysis of
ef‌f orts to promote positive public values in political
conduct.  e Labour governments of 1997–2010 can
be characterized by their ef‌f orts to restructure modes
of governance across the state, notably, measures that
strengthened central control and expanded the use of
managerial forms of coordination (Newman 2001).
Local government was a particular target, through
a program of reforms badged as “local government
modernization,” which included an intensif‌i cation
and centralization of ef‌f orts to regulate the conduct of
local politicians (commonly known as “councillors”
or “elected members”). Major components of what
became known as the “ethical framework,” which ran
for 10 years from 2000, were the introduction of a
model code of conduct and processes for investigating
and adjudicating complaints of misconduct. However,
resistance to the ethical framework by local politicians
from across the political divide, as well as the election
of a coalition government in May 2010 with policies
to promote “localism” and reduce bureaucracy, saw
the almost complete abolition of the framework.  e
dynamics of resistance of‌f er important opportunities
for analysis and show how conf‌l icts between concep-
tions of “good conduct” are tied up with disputes
surrounding the practices by which political conduct
should be regulated.
A number of theoretical frameworks are available to
examine how ethical governance arrangements are put
to work, including perspectives based on actor-net-
work theory and the “travel of ideas” literatures (Helin
and Sandström 2010; Jensen, Sandström, and Helin
Managing Politics? Ethics Regulation and Conf‌l icting
Conceptions of “Good Conduct”

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