Ethics – the forgotten heart of governance

Ethical decision-making is what everyone wants from the public sector.  Has the pandemic moved ethics more into the open as essential to good governance?  A Commission roundtable on governance during the pandemic found mixed evidence on this issue. Our contributors described how their organisations had to make numerous, highly consequential decisions over a short period of time, with many not explicitly engaging with ethical concerns.

We are most used to thinking about ethical questions when ethics is the sole component of decision-making – the issue of who gets treatment when services are over-run being the most topical this year.

Yet ethics are, or at least should be, everywhere in our decision-making, particularly in the public sector. As our roundtable uncovered, boards and leaders are making decisions with ethical dimensions in all areas of the public sector, without even realising it.

The need for ethical frameworks

Making ‘ethical’ decisions is often not about having one course of action that leads to an ethical result, but rather is a process which satisfies all the possible considerations a board could have and means that the process, and therefore the decision, was ethically made. To ensure these considerations are made, boards can employ ethical frameworks, which are sets of principles and behavioural standards that help organisations decide how to act.

Although some organisations do have such frameworks, the gravity of decisions made during the pandemic has underlined the need for these across the public sector. Indeed, ethical frameworks are not only necessary in times of crisis. The present pandemic has raised the salience of these concerns and highlighted the need for us to made long-term adjustments to our decision-making.

While organisations may need to choose the specific emphasis of their ethical framework based on their service or location, the idea that they should be instituted explicitly across the public sector raises the wider question of how this can be achieved.

The nuances of ethics sit very poorly with rigid central government diktats. Indeed, the complex, specific and dynamic nature of decisions, of which ethics is a core part, would likely fast outpace any regulatory requirements.  Mandating ethical frameworks requires regulation to be more sophisticated than just a tick-box exercise.

Flexible and values-driven

Instead, this process will have to be guided by something more flexible and values-driven. This ‘principles-based’ approach to regulation means a move away from detailed and prescriptive compliance check-lists to a broader set of standards. As such, organisations would be given broad-base standards which allow them to account for the specifics and complexities of the ethical dimensions of any given decision, something a rigid regulatory approach may fail to capture.

These methods could provide a model for regulation over the next decade and beyond. Particularly as regulatory challenges become more complex in areas such as AI and machine learning, specific regulatory requirements may be unable to keep pace with the rapidly changing ethical demands these will place on public sector leaders.

Not only is there a need for ethical frameworks, but if they are introduced, the centre needs to give organisations the responsibility, flexibility and autonomy to make these their own, while providing the values and light touch to steer them on their way.

Key points

  • Ethical dimensions of decision-making persist across almost all decisions made by organisations.
  • Ethical frameworks can help guide boards through a process which enables them to know their final decision has satisfied ethical considerations.
  • The regulation of these frameworks necessitates a more agile system of compliance than currently exists in most sectors.


Get in touch

Your voice is vital to the National Commission. Get involved by emailing

Keep up to date

Sign up here to be kept up to date with the latest National Commission news