News and Comment

Transparency in governance

Thursday 28 July 2011

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The News of the World furore reminds us of the fundamental importance of good governance in government and public life. At the heart of good governance is good behaviour of course, but unless we want our public leaders to be reclusive, isolated people we need to be reminded from time to time of the vital importance of openness, and when necessary, formal declarations of interest.

When I am providing support and challenge to public boards and to individual board members I use the tried and tested Good Governance Standard for Public Services, which OPM and The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) developed and published in 2004. It came out of the work of the Independent Commission on Good Governance in Public Services, established by OPM and CIPFA in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The standard includes a chapter on behaviour, values and probity. People nod seriously but take this for granted. It is only when we do some work on typical scenarios faced by most of the 500,000 or so members of governing bodies that the real complexity emerges.

I find that the following are useful questions, which help people to understand this important aspect of good governance. I hope that by having really personal conversations about these everyday situations that governors have at least a better than even chance of making the right decisions about whether and what to disclose on record.

  1. You meet a neighbour or friend who complains about a service you are governing. Are you clear about your complaints policy? Do you give them special attention? When might it be appropriate to escalate the process yourself?
  2. You are invited to a charity fundraising dinner by a contractor working for the organisation? How do you react? Who do you tell?
  3. An employee of the organisation on which you are a board member becomes a good friend. How can you avoid actual and perceived conflicts of interest arising?
  4. Your brother-in-law runs a contracting business, which wants to tender for business with the organisation of which you are a board member. What do you do?

These are complicated human problems, which in many ways can only get worse as local government, schools and the NHS choose to outsource services and as we seek to involve local community-based organisations in public services. Openness and transparency are, of course, the answer to all the above questions, but that does not mean that the decisions are easy or that the press will not from time to time make the governance job extremely challenging even for the most honourable people.