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The Nolan Principles - 20 years on...

In 1994, the UK government established a Committee on Standards in Public Life. The committee was chaired by Lord Nolan, and was tasked with making recommendations to improve standards of behaviour in public life. The first report of the committee established the seven principles of public life, also known as the “Nolan principles”. 20 years on from the development of the principles, have they made a difference, and are they still relevant?

The fact that the Nolan Principles are widely used suggests that they are indeed relevant and useful. Apply for any public appointment in Northern Ireland, and the information booklet will ask you as an applicant to “subscribe to and uphold the seven principles of public life (the “Nolan principles”)”.

So what are the Nolan principles of public life? The seven principles are outlined below:

  • Selflessness – Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.
  • Integrity – Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.
  • Objectivity – In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.
  • Accountability – Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.
  • Openness – Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.
  • Honesty – Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.
  • Leadership – Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

You’d be hard-pushed to find anyone to argue against such noble values, but are they enough in and of themselves to ensure good behaviour in public life?

The Nolan principles were revolutionary at the time because they focused on behaviour and culture, rather than processes. Therefore if someone lives by these values, it will go a long way to improving behaviour. The welcome side-effect is a board which has a tighter rein on processes and compliance, leading to a win-win situation. If you are really practicing accountability, integrity and leadership, you will ensure your organisation has a strategic plan in place, is spending public money wisely and is delivering exceptional service for all customers. If you are selfless and honest, you will be making decisions which are in the interests of the organisation, putting aside any personal interest and acting objectively and independently. Organisations which are open have been shown to have more stakeholder involvement in the planning process, leading to enhanced public service.

The Nolan principles have weathered the last 20 years well. We’d consider them a timeless classic!