Building trust: Character or accountability?

There was a fascinating vignette of modern government when the former head of GCHQ (the government’s listening post), Sir David Omand, was quizzed by Keith Vaz, the chairman of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee during on a session on counter-terrorism. (The Home Affairs Committee, 11 February 2014.) Sir David argued – rightly, and counter-intuitively – that character was a better guarantee of probity than transparency. Well, there was more to his argument than that…

Mr Vaz seemed keen to suggest that Parliamentary oversight of the secret world of government required that more of the services’ work be exposed to public view in front of open Select Committees (rather than, as now, much of it being before closed sessions). Ah, said Sir David, that would carry various risks. Besides, he said, the trick to Parliament and the public being confident about the law-abiding decency of the secret services is that the public hearings, and an element of the Committees’ visits to secret service operations, should be about ensuring that we get to assess “the moral fibre” of the people who lead and work in them. I think it is fair to say that Mr Vaz giggled at this thought.

This is important stuff. Sir David had – I am pretty sure – once earlier told the committee (or another such) that one of the reasons he was confident that the current bosses of the services were probably behaving themselves is that he believed that had he tried anything underhand or wrong, his staff – being good and decent – would have refused to obey. This constitutes a sort of reciprocal or double-lock guarantee of decency.
I am very inclined to believe that Sir David is right about the character-transparency balance. And I go much further.

It seems to me that modern Britons are losing faith in their institutions – government, administration, firms and professions – and that almost all the obvious solutions have been tried and have failed. We have for all sorts of reasons supposed that we need to make everyone in authority accountable to the public, and we will just about put up with the idea of Parliament as a proxy or channel for that reporting back.

An apparatus has developed to deliver accountability: select committees have turned themselves into Star Chambers; no-one feels safe unless they fill-in and receive tick-box data reports; league tables purport to tell us where to look for heroes and villains.

Along the way, we have barely noticed what one might call the Onora Dilemma. Baroness Onora O’Neill’s thinking about transparency led her to suggest that it can increase suspicion. It’s simple, really: the more everyone bangs on about transparency, the more the public grows suspicious that there is something awful which people had wanted to cover up.

Behind that are older concerns that the increased Freedom of Information can have the unintended consequence of driving all important discussion and decision-making into whatever corners of the bureaucracy aren’t subject to email-trails, CCTV, covert recording or bugging.
Even league tables have turned out to be fiendish: professionals learn how to recategorise the headings under which data are filed, or game the system in even cleverer ways.

To bend the rules of accountability requires that people behave less than well. But success in tricking the system is a powerful incentive to such bad behaviour.

Oh, and whilst the media and Parliament indulge in more and more contemptuous dealings with their victims, these supposed villains become more efficient at stone-walling, grandstanding and strategic dissembling.

So we can argue that the indispensible guarantee of institutional probity – the good character of the leaders and rank-and-file of institutions – is put under attack by the very apparatus of accountability which is intended to build trust.

Of course, there is a place for all these modern developments. But, Sir David’s main point is right. We need people at every level in society to feel that whatever they are employed or required to do, they need to behave with competence and probity. In many areas of life, this amounts to behaving professionally. People need to behave in the best traditions of their profession.

I think it is possible to work out quite easily what professionalism is at its best. And it is not impossible to drive out most of the bad things about professionalism. More generally, and especially lower down the power hierarchy, it isn’t difficult to get people to understand what decency requires in most work situations.

Of course, there are serious difficulties and conflicts in any real-life world. One can’t endlessly prioritise one’s own conscience; one’s loyalty to colleagues is not trivial and may conflict with higher and more abstract loyalties; a strong leader can often blind his or her followers to their faults.

And over all that, there is something to be said for transparency and accountability.

Still, learning to build and then trust character may be wiser than insisting that safety lies in opening everything and everyone to perpetual, aggressive scrutiny.

Learning to build character is not all that easy, of course. It requires people to take their obligations as seriously as they do their rights. It often requires that people put their career or profit at risk. It requires that people care about the institutions for which they work, and do so to the extent of worrying about the long-term interest of their institution rather than today’s It often requires that one puts an abstract quality (society, the institution, goodness) ahead of short term personal gain.

I didn’t say the “character” route was easy, or easier than the transparency route. I just said it would work better.

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Publication date

23 February 2014