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Consult on extending FOI to private sector providers of public services: watchdog

The Committee for Standards in Public Life has called for a consultation on whether the Freedom of Information Act should apply to private sector providers where information relates to the performance of a public service contract.

In its latest report, The Continuing Importance of Ethical Standards for Public Service Providers, the CSPL said there had been little real progress on measures to enforce ethical standards in outsourced public services.

It urged the government, service providers and professionals to do more to encourage robust cultures of ethical behaviour in public service delivery.

Lord Bew, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said: “From waste disposal to health care and probation services, all kinds of public services are routinely supplied to many of us by private or voluntary sector organisations, paid for with public funds - accounting for almost one third of government spending in 2017.

“The public is clear that they expect common ethical standards – whoever is delivering the service – and that when things go wrong there is transparency and accountability about what has happened.”

Lord Bew said that, “disappointingly”, very little progress had been made on implementing the recommendations in the CSPL’s 2014 report, Ethical standards for providers of public services. He added that evidence showed that most service providers needed to do more to demonstrate best practice in ethical standards.

“In particular, we remain concerned over the lack of internal governance and leadership on ethical standards in those departments with significant public service contracts. Departmental and management boards spend little, if any, time considering ethical considerations and tend to delegate such issues ‘down the line’. Those involved in commissioning and auditing contracts remain too focused on the quantitative rather than the qualitative aspects of their role. And departments lack clear lines of accountability when contracts fail,” the CSPL’s chair said.

He added: “While many service providers have developed a greater awareness of their ethical obligations in recent years, partly due to the high-profile failure of some organisations to adhere to these standards, some remain dismissive of the Nolan Principles or adopt a ‘pick and mix’ approach, which is not in the public interest. And many service providers continue to expect that setting and enforcing ethical standards remain a matter for government alone.”

Lord Bew said the committee remained of the view that more must be done to encourage strong and robust cultures of ethical behaviour in those delivering public services. “To that end, the Committee reaffirms the recommendations made in its 2014 report and has made a further set of more detailed, follow-up recommendations to address particular issues of concern.”

These additional recommendations are:

  • Commissioners of services should include a Statement of Intent as part of the commissioning process or alongside contracts where they are extended, setting out the ethical behaviours expected by government of the service providers
  • The HM Treasury Code of Practice for Government Boards should be revised to include ethical standards as key considerations for departmental boards
  • Departmental boards should put in place processes to learn lessons regarding contractual relationships prior to contracts’ conclusion or extension
  • Departmental boards should demonstrate leadership on the importance of high ethical standards in commissioning and elevate responsibility for the overall framework for commissioning for services, including expected ethical standards, to board level
  • The Government Chief Commercial Officer should revise the Standards of Service for the Government Commercial Function personnel to include understanding of and commitment to continuing awareness of ethical standards
  • Ethical standards training relevant to procurement and commissioning activities should be mandatory for all civil servants for whom commissioning is part of their role
  • Accounting Officers in their annual accounts should provide assurance in accordance with HM Treasury’s ‘Principles of Managing Public Money’ that high ethical standards are part of achieving value for money
  • All professional bodies such as CIPS, CIPFA, ICAEW and ICAS, as well as the National Audit Office, should insist that financial, audit, legal and actuarial professionals demonstrate ‘moral courage’ when they witness irregularities, and ensure they know where to go to make professional complaints about ethical standards breaches
  • The government should hold a public consultation on the question of expanding the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (UK) to include information held by providers where that information relates, directly or indirectly, to performance of a contract with government for the delivery of public services
  • All public service providers must, at the point of commissioning, agree to the commissioning bodies’ Statement of Intent on the ethical behaviour expected of the Board, employees and subcontractors in delivery of any contract
  • All public service providers must, at the point of commissioning, publish a corollary “Statement of Providers’ Intent” providing their plan for embedding a culture of high ethical standards in their service delivery approach during the life of the contract. This statement should reference the providers’ approach to ethical leadership, performance management, induction and ongoing professional training on ethical issues and honesty in reflecting performance issues during the life of the contract
  • All suppliers to government be required to publish the process and anonymised outcomes of whistleblowing and complaints process the organisation has in place

“Following the corporate failures of a number of the biggest providers of services to government since 2013, including the devastating collapse of Carillion early in 2018, it is now essential that the government confirm their expectations of ethical standards among those who deliver services with public money,” Lord Bew argued.