8 August 2011

State servants are employed to serve their agency chief executive with integrity.  That means being fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy.  The chief executive of the agency has the statutory duty to serve the responsible Minister (or in the case of Crown entities, serve the Board of the entity, which in turn serves the  Minister) with  loyalty and professionalism.

What is being uncovered with the media focus in Britain on  the News of the World and related phone hacking matters, is that the expected pattern of professionalism and loyalty has been corrupted. Officials appear not to have been acting with integrity.  In too many activities identified to date, there has been a failure to recognise, disclose and declare conflict of interests.   It appears increasingly likely that regardless of code of conduct obligations, there has been a disregard for the principal of openness. Good government is built on transparency.  But the British Government is in strife because of underhand processes by officials who, at this stage, seem to have rationalised their deceit with notions that their actions were harmless.

In a concerning critique of the trustworthiness of UK Government agencies, the Independent  reported yesterday on investigations carried out to confirm the character of Andy Coulson,  the former News of the World editor, when appointed as a Prime Ministerial adviser.  Investigations were commissioned to assess  his suitability to carry out such work.  What is being disclosed is that the checks departed from any manifestation of the spirit of service.  The specifics remain vague but it appears that the clearance assessment was carried out by a contractor, not by an agency vetting-professional.  That contractor had previously undertaken work for the News of the World.  An inference is that the contractor failed to declare conflicting activities and interests, and that the commissioning agency failed to demand openness from him.  The Secretary to the Cabinet’s observation seems somewhat lame, that “the purpose of security vetting, … is about access to information not suitability for a job”.

And on a connected note, the Al Capone principle has continuing currency.  The Guardian has reported that British tax authorities are opening an investigation into the senior police officers paid for giving information to News of the World.  The payments, not disclosed to the Metropolitan Police as the employing agency, were not declared for tax purposes either. That may have greater implications for the officers than the deceit, breach of duty and disregard for the relevant code of conduct involved in not being open about the payments at the time of receipt.