Richard Cowell is researcher and
lecturer in the School of Planning and
Geography, Cardiff University. His research
interests cover theoretical and political
aspects of the relationship between public
policy and sustainable development, includ-
ing governmental strategies for resolving
sociospatial confl icts. He has written widely
on issues of policy integration, public
participation, and trust, with a particular
interest in ethics regulation in English local
James Downe is a reader in public
management in the Centre for Local and
Regional Government Research, Cardiff
Business School. His current research
interests include local government perform-
ance regimes, political accountability, public
trust, and the ethical behavior of local
politicians. He has more than 10 years of
experience conducting evaluations on local
government policy and has published widely
in international journals.
Karen Morgan is lecturer and
researcher in the Gender Violence Research
Centre in the School for Policy Studies,
University of Bristol. Her research has exam-
ined domestic and/or sexual violence, social
housing provision, the ethical framework
governing local councillors in England, the
needs of homeless women, and ethical food
choices. Karen is also associate lecturer
with the Open University and serves on the
Academic Advisory Panel of an educational
charity, the Vegan Society.
Managing Politics? Ethics Regulation and Confl icting Conceptions of “Good Conduct” 29
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 1, pp. 29–38. © 2013 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
Richard Cowell James Downe
Cardiff University, United Kingdom
Karen Morgan University of Bristol, United Kingdom
Concern for fostering trust in public institutions has prompted many governments to invest in systems of ethics regulation, embracing various dimensions of good governance. Th is article assesses the impact of ethics regulation on the conduct of English local politicians using Foucauldian perspectives on government, power, and resistance. Th e research fi nds that ethics regulation encountered problems when politicians resisted the models of political identity and behavior that it was perceived to promote. Particular concentrations of misconduct complaints were identifi ed in which politicians believed that changes to political management structures, designed to make local governance more eff ective, caused a loss of voice for elected representatives. Ethics regulation itself sometimes served as a device for controlling others and eff ecting resistance. Th e article concludes with refl ections on how far we should expect political conduct to be man- aged by such regulatory practices.
Across the globe, there has been growing interest in the promotion of good governance, includ-ing the achievement of high ethical standards of conduct in public institutions. Th is is refl ected in the widespread rolling out of codes of conduct, statements of values, and processes for addressing misconduct allegations (Fording, Miller, and Patton 2003; West and Davis 2011). In many countries, this is driven by the urge to address serious cases of cor- ruption and dishonesty. However, this enterprise often goes much wider, as governments seek to cultivate an array of ethical behaviors in the public sector moti- vated by broader desires to improve public trust.
While ethics regulation has become pervasive in Western democracies and a growing focus of pub- lic administration research, analysis of the impacts of such practices is underdeveloped (Helin and Sandström 2010; Van der Wal 2011; West and Davis 2011), and existing studies have given more atten- tion to public offi cials than to elected politicians, who are the focus here. Th ree questions drive this article: First, can diff erent dimensions of good conduct for politicians—such as treating others with respect,
not working for self-interest, or using institutional resources appropriately—be promoted eff ectively by ethics regulation? Second, how do ethics regulation and the principles of good conduct that it embodies interact with other factors that shape how politicians behave? Finally, are there facets of political conduct, as an exercise in the representation of interests and mobilization of power, that make it especially resistant to formal ethics regulation?
England is an interesting context for the analysis of eff orts to promote positive public values in political conduct. Th e Labour governments of 1997–2010 can be characterized by their eff orts to restructure modes of governance across the state, notably, measures that strengthened central control and expanded the use of managerial forms of coordination (Newman 2001). Local government was a particular target, through a program of reforms badged as “local government modernization,” which included an intensifi cation and centralization of eff orts to regulate the conduct of local politicians (commonly known as “councillors” or “elected members”). Major components of what became known as the “ethical framework,” which ran for 10 years from 2000, were the introduction of a model code of conduct and processes for investigating and adjudicating complaints of misconduct. However, resistance to the ethical framework by local politicians from across the political divide, as well as the election of a coalition government in May 2010 with policies to promote “localism” and reduce bureaucracy, saw the almost complete abolition of the framework. Th e dynamics of resistance off er important opportunities for analysis and show how confl icts between concep- tions of “good conduct” are tied up with disputes surrounding the practices by which political conduct should be regulated.
A number of theoretical frameworks are available to examine how ethical governance arrangements are put to work, including perspectives based on actor-net- work theory and the “travel of ideas” literatures (Helin and Sandström 2010; Jensen, Sandström, and Helin
Managing Politics? Ethics Regulation and Confl icting Conceptions of “Good Conduct”
30 Public Administration Review • January | February 2014
legislative, regulatory, and discursive practices to work on ways of behaving. Th us, the vari- ous components of ethics regulation—codes, guidance, education, complaints procedures, and possible sanctions for infractions—could be said to entail a “relationship of power,” that is, a “mode of action that does not act directly and immediately upon others [but i] nstead acts upon their actions … on possible or actual future or present actions” (Foucault
1982, 342). Importantly, Foucauldian scholarship explains how the shaping of conduct is not merely a matter of domination, so for our research, it is not as simple as telling councillors how they should behave and securing compliance. Government is also performed by practices that eff ect a wider, more pervasive governance of the self, in which “the self ” is active (Gordon 1991; Rabinow 1984; Sharp et al. 2000) and expectations are internalized, characterized as the “manipulation of conscience” (McNay 1994, 122). Th e coordinat- ing mechanisms (regulations, discourses) by which these eff ects are pursued are often termed “technologies,” and ethics regulation can thus be conceived as embodying technologies of government and of the self.
Foucauldian perspectives on the limits of coercive state power fi nd an echo in the dominant explanatory frameworks by which ethics regulation is deemed to “work.” Many analysts see problems arising when an integrity model, in which subjects are trusted to oversee their own behavior, is supplanted by a compliance model of regula- tion (see Lawton 2005; Washington and Armstrong 1996), in which the central government exercises greater surveillance and control. Such moves have been criticized as ineff ective because formal, regulatory mechanisms—in which misconduct is corrected ex post through the disciplining of transgressors—require a wider basis of support in which a shared conception of what constitutes good conduct is actively embraced and pervasively reinforced through routine, informal interactions within a given organizational setting (Doig and Skelcher 2001; Greasley 2006). Th is requires organiza- tional measures to foster active responsibility for ethical conduct rather than just passive compliance with rules (Bovens 1998; Greasley et al. 2006), such that subjects identify with and embrace responsibility for upholding the code of conduct.
However, Foucauldian perspectives on government and power would take us beyond this counterposition of integrity and com- pliance models. First, the emphasis on practices reorients analysis away from assessing the degree of alignment (or not) of behavior with a set of principles, presumed to be agreed or neutral, to tracing the construction of practices that embody and mobilize particular principles. Examining such practices alerts us to more fundamental problems in the sphere of ethics regulation, in which governments regularly struggle to defi ne “good conduct” a priori, such that it can be used in regulatory activity. Th e issue has been addressed by a range of analysts, including those writing outside the Foucauldian perspective. To govern across territory, government seeks to codify and simplify its system of principles—defi ning the ambit of eth- ics regulation, specifying standardized responses—but trying to apply these often abstract values across heterogeneous, concrete situations often fails to settle questions about action (West and Davis 2011). Th e result is complexity and, as the ethical principles
2009) and others that draw on “new pragma- tist” social theory (Boltanski 2010; West and Davis 2011). Ethics regulation can also be critiqued from meta-ethical perspectives (e.g., “disclosive ethics,” Brey 2000; Introna 2005) or in terms of central–local relations (Laffi n 2009). We take our approach from the work of Michel Foucault, whose intellectual tools for understanding government, power, and resistance seem eminently appropriate for ana- lyzing the regulation of conduct. On the one hand, the introduction of practices for codifying and regulating acceptable conduct appear to exemplify the exercise of coercive state power. Yet the practical reality of translating stated values into conduct is that this cannot be realized purely by regulatory compliance. Th e (supposed) sharing of ethical values, through which individuals are meant to be self-regu- lating—governed by the “self-steering forces of honour and shame, of propriety, obligation, trust, fi delity, and commitment to others” (Rose 2000, 324)—is what proponents of ethics regulation might have hoped to see unfolding among local politicians. However, the resistance to and subversion of ethics regulation that we observed in practice suggests a need to examine the “strategic games which subjects the power relations they are supposed to guarantee to insta- bility and reversal” (Foucault 1976, cited in Rabinow 1984, 338). Foucault’s insights on resistance are useful here, supplemented with new pragmatist perspectives on the fundamental diffi culties facing ex ante ethics codifi cation in the fi eld (West and Davis 2011).
Th e next section of the article explains how Foucauldian ideas can be used to interpret the operation of ethics regulation, then outlines the ethical framework in English local government. Turning to the empirical material, we fi rst expand on the methodology used in our research, then set out our fi ndings. Here, we sketch the generality of perceived impacts of the ethical framework before tracing in more depth the forms and consequences of some of the resistance that we observed. In our concluding section, we refl ect on the implications of our fi ndings for future research on ethics regulation.
Interpreting the Regulation of Conduct Struggles over the regulation of ethics can be fruitfully explored through Foucault’s methodological emphasis on tracing the geneal- ogy of practices through which power operates in society, found in his discussions of both “government” (Gordon 1991) and the way in which power acts on subjectivity (peoples’ sense of self ). Government in a Foucauldian sense can be seen as the “conduct of conduct: a form of activity aiming to shape, guide or aff ect the conduct of some person or persons” (Gordon 1991, 2). Although widely used to examine the constitution of society as a governable realm, Foucault’s approach also has relevance for understanding rela- tions within and across the fragmented domains of the state (Sharp et al. 2000): between executive and legislature or between diff erent levels of government. Indeed, tracing the practices by which the possible scope of action are codifi ed and delimited helps us interpret the shifting boundaries between the political and technical dimen- sions of government (Barry, Osborne, and Rose 1996).
From this perspective, ethics regulation can be seen as a set of mechanisms by which governments seek to establish a common goal of good conduct (Rose and Miller 1992), which is tied in with other
Th e various components of eth- ics regulation—codes, guidance,
education, complaints proce- dures, and possible sanctions for
infractions—could be said to entail a “relationship of power.”
Managing Politics? Ethics Regulation and Confl icting Conceptions of “Good Conduct” 31
legitimizing their actions, highlighting that managerial, regulatory traditions such as the ethical framework is just one mechanism for governing conduct within the state (Bevir and Rhodes 2010; Newman 2001). As a result, one should expect a variety of responses to ethics regulation, including resistance to the technologies of power and self through which
it is enacted. Resistance may be focused on specifi c misconduct alle- gations, the sanctions imposed, or the entire authority of the ethical framework and the policies behind it. Narratives of resistance may be interlinked: for example, beliefs about the unworkability of rules may legitimize noncompliance (Van der Wal, De Graaf, and Lawson 2011). Entangled with delivery and resistance is also the possibility of subversion, as the ethical framework is used to exercise power in ways and directions beyond the straightforward promulgation of good conduct.
It should be recognized that Foucauldian concepts have their limits. Th e binary representation of normalization/resistance may not fully capture the diversity of outcomes as devices such as ethical codes travel through society and are enacted locally (Bevir and Rhodes 2010). Helin and Sandström (2010) adopt a translation-based conception of power, which allows them to examine how actors “consenting” to ethics regulation may still reformulate its meaning, potentially devaluing its importance. Apparent compliance can thus be entangled with narratives that “resist” ethics regulation by various strategies of “distancing” its relevance to the subjects concerned (after Collinson 1994). We acknowledge this perspective and note that resistance may be overt, developed, and organized or subtle, passive, and relatively hidden (see also Scott 1985). In our analy- sis, however, we give primary attention to examining the explicit resistance that surfaced around ethics regulation in English local government and assessing what might be learned from the contexts in which this emerged. Before we do this, we outline key features of the research context.
Ethics Regulation in English Local Government Th e ethical framework for local government in England has been the product of considerable contestation, as the preceding, com- paratively informal approach to ethics (Doig and Skelcher 2001) was overlain by national arrangements set out under the Local Government Act of 2000 (part III). Th e act required all local coun- cils to introduce a model code of conduct that all councillors had to sign, to establish a register of members’ interests, and to set up local standards committees. Th e new arrangements invested authority in “independence” from local politics, as local standards committees had independent chairs and two new central bodies were estab- lished—the Standards Board for England (renamed Standards for England in 2009) and the Adjudication Panel for England.
Th ese measures can be seen as creating a highly centralized system of surveillance and control of local government by central government. Among the factors driving these changes, the government needed to respond to high-profi le examples of misconduct in councils con- trolled by the Labour Party and therefore needed to be seen to be “putting houses in order.” Th e measures also refl ected a belief that only an “independent” system could promote public confi dence in local government (Macaulay and Lawton 2006a), a facet of more
undergo further reinterpretation, a blurring of meaning (Jensen, Sandström, and Helin 2009). Complexities also arise because of the potential for principles of good governance to confl ict with each other, such as the tensions between integrity, transparency, and effi ciency (De Vries 2002; Van der Wal, De Graaf, and Lawson 2011). Th e tendency for the relation- ship of values to situations to be underspecifi ed (West and Davis 2011) explains why the desire to create and reinforce norms of behavior “tends to be accompanied by an astonishing proliferation of legislation” (Ewald 1990, 138).
Th e second and often connected set of problems concerns the issue of resistance. Many analysts of ethics regulation (and practi- tioners) tend to overlook resistance, see it as aberrant, or collapse such behavior into simple “noncompliance.” However, Foucault’s observations about the mutually constitutive nature of domina- tion and resistance lead us to take resistance more seriously. For Foucault, in any power relation, “there is necessarily the possibil- ity of resistance” (1996, 441) as “the history of government as the ‘conduct of conduct’ is interwoven with the history of dissenting ‘counter-conducts’” (Gordon 1991, 5). Indeed, in acting on norms of subjects and their sense of self and identity (Burchell 1991), the power relations of the ethical framework off er myriad incentives and opportunities for resistance.
Foucault’s emphasis on resistance and identity may be pertinent in exploring why politicians are especially likely to resist aspects of ethics regulation. On an immediate level, there is the competitive nature of politics and the incentives that this creates for securing short-term advantage rather than upholding abstract principles of good governance (Mulgan 2006). Further issues arise from the ways in which ethics regulation—and the conceptions of good conduct that are mobilized—intersects with the social identities of council- lors and the diff erent sets of norms that may be used to legitimize their action. In practice, politicians may draw authority for their behavior from their personal judgment, their electoral mandate, the local community, or the need to deliver on party policy—any of which may be more infl uential than complying with ethics regu- lation (Maesschalck 2004; Philp 2001). Politicians may see it as integral to their sense of self that elections should be the preeminent disciplinary process through which their behavior is regulated by society. Ethics regulation may also be seen as less salient than the ties of community. Indeed, the connections between local councillors and local networks are widely seen as a positive quality (Councillors Commission 2007, 15), but sustaining those networks may mediate the propensity of councillors to enact the values codifi ed in ethics regulation (such as principles of impartiality).
To summarize, Foucauldian perspectives alert us to a number of potential problems in the regulation of politicians’ conduct. First, there is the diffi culty of governing conduct across heterogeneous set- tings, multiple social relations, and (often) contested facts, in which the growing complexity of regulations cannot remove interpretive fl exibility or dictate solutions for every situation. In politics, the insuffi ciency of codifi ed norms is regularly exposed, and the judg- ments that they seek to stabilize are questioned (West and Davis 2011). Second, local politicians can draw on an array of bases for
One should expect a variety of responses to ethics regula-
tion, including resistance to the technologies of power and self through which it is enacted.
32 Public Administration Review • January | February 2014
principles of selfl essness and openness, for example), but it proved more diffi cult to specify and police the practices required to avoid a suspicion of corruption (centering on the registration and declaration of interests). Moreover, the government sought to regulate broader categories of behavior, such as treating others with respect and not bringing the local authority into disrepute, which require demarca- tion from legitimate political argument and tactics.
One can begin to observe the tendency, noted earlier, of ethics regulation to expand and become more complex as government seeks to defi ne and promote good conduct across the multiplicity of contexts and situations in which councillors might fi nd themselves (CSPL 1997; West and Davis 2011). Th us, abstract principles such as “selfl essness” or “respect for others” were decomposed into an ever-evolving and expanding suite of guidance.
Local reactions to ethics regulation may also have been shaped by its intersection with another centrally driven component of New Labour’s local government reforms: the requirement that all councils “modernize” their political management arrangements. Here, the aim was to make local governance more eff ective by creating more accountable and streamlined forms of decision mak- ing, with powers to be concentrated in either cabinets of executive members or directly elected mayors (Greasley and Stoker 2008). Th ese new structures underpin moves to create a more professional- ized, managerial ethos in the political governance of local councils (Entwistle, Martin, and Enticott 2005; Newman 2001) but led to confl ict where councillors’ traditional roles and identities were chal- lenged. In some councils, those outside cabinet structures felt that these changes reduced the opportunity for political debate and their chance to infl uence decision making. As executive members made the decisions, they felt “out of the loop” (Davis and Geddes 2000; Fenwick, Elcock, and Lilley 2003). Th ese frustrations and a sense of voicelessness were to have consequences for ethics regulation, as our research shows.
Methodology Th is article draws from interviews conducted with 119 individu- als across nine case studies of English councils between June and October 2008. Th e interviews were semistructured and designed to elicit views on the practice of ethics regulation in each council. We conducted interviews with those who had formal roles in opera- tionalizing the ethical framework: local authority chief executives, monitoring offi cers (responsible for overseeing the operation of the ethical framework), and members of local standards commit- tees, which included both elected and independent representatives. We also interviewed those who were subject to the ethical frame- work—council and party group leaders, other elected members, and parish councils—as well as individuals with informed views on how patterns of conduct may have changed—other senior offi cers, representatives from other local public bodies that worked with councils, and journalists with experience covering local government. Finally, we examined the number of complaints in each case study and interviewed councillors who were “serial off enders” under the ethical framework.
We selected case studies that met a range of criteria (see table 2). In particular, we chose councils that had experienced many com- plaints under the code of conduct and those that had experienced
enduring mistrust that characterizes relationships between local and central government (Newman 2001). Th e ethical framework could also be seen as exemplifying wider political and manage- rial judgments integral to Labour’s overarching local government modernization agenda: that “transformational change is . . . not only self-evidently necessary but also achievable” (Geddes and Martin 2000, 392) and that such change can be achieved from the center through rational planning around universal values.
Such judgments were contested by those arguing that English local government has generally displayed relatively good conduct and low levels of corruption and thus should retain prime responsibility for regulating councillors’ behavior (CSPL 1997, 2005; EU 2007). Initially, the Standards Board took on the primary role in assess- ing and investigating complaints, but the backlog of complaints prompted some decentralization of these arrangements. Th e 2008 Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act passed the role of assessing, investigating, and taking appropriate action on most complaints from the Standards Board to local standards com- mittees. Th e Standards Board became a “strategic regulator,” moni- toring and advising on the overall implementation of the framework and only investigating the most serious cases.
Seeking to promote good conduct among local councillors through such regulatory practices was arguably made more diffi cult by the breadth of good governance principles brought within the ambit of the ethical framework (see table 1). Th e code embraces the very widely held view that councillors should not be corrupt (under the
Table 1 Categories of Misconduct under the Local Government Act of 2000
10 Principles of Public Life ( local government)
Categories of Misconduct (part of the code)
Selfl essness • You must not use your position to improperly confer an advantage or disadvantage for yourself or any other person (Part 1 6[a])
• Prejudicial interest—seeking to improperly infl uence (Part 2 12[c])
• Prejudicial interest—attended meeting for purposes not available to the public (Part 2 12)
Honesty and integrity • You must not conduct yourself in a manner which could bring your authority into disrepute (Part 1 5)
Objectivity Accountability Openness • Personal interest—failure to declare (Part 2 9)
• Prejudicial interest—failure to withdraw (Part 2 12[a]) • Failure to register interests (Part 3 13)
Personal judgement Respect for others • You must treat others with respect (Part 1 3)
• You must not bully any person (Part 1 3[b]) • You must not do anything which could cause your
authority to breach equality laws (Part 1 3[a]) • You must not intimidate or threaten to intimidate
any person who is likely to be involved in a complaint (Part 1 3[c])
• You must not compromise or attempt to compromise the impartiality of anyone who works for the author- ity (Part 1 3[d])
Duty to uphold the law
• You must not disclose confi dential information (Part 1 4[a])
Stewardship • You must only use the authority’s resources in accord- ance with it requirements and must not use the authority’s resources for political purposes (Part 1 6[b])
Source: Standards Board for England (2007) and categories of misconduct that applied at that time.
Managing Politics? Ethics Regulation and Confl icting Conceptions of “Good Conduct” 33
in which the ethical framework shapes the conduct of council- lors in the direction intended by its proponents, before focusing more closely on ways in which the framework has been resisted or subverted.
The Shaping of Conduct Our research supports previous studies in fi nding that the introduc- tion of the ethical framework improved the conduct of councillors. Cross-national surveys suggest that there has been a reduction in serious forms of misconduct pertaining to corruption (BMG 2007, 2008), and we encountered similar perceptions. Th e causal mecha- nisms proff ered echo Foucault’s analysis in terms of the ways in which individuals’ conduct is “shaped” according to certain norms. For example, the leader of a well-performing council with few issues of misconduct (case study A) suggested that any eff ect of the ethical framework on the conduct of councillors was “unconscious.” Th e framework was not something that members actually considered on a day-to-day basis, but, as the monitoring offi cer from the same council said, although “they keep forgetting the rules . . . that’s not to say they don’t apply them . . . and they’re aware of it [the ethical framework].” Complaints against councillors were also low in case study B, an urban borough with a diverse population and pockets of deprivation. Here, eff orts to shape conduct were much more perva- sive, explicit, and vigorous, with training in the ethical framework being mandatory and closely policed:
[W]e bang on about [the ethical framework] and keep the profi le high all the time. So every year [the councillors] get their annual sheep-dip of the member code, whether they like it or not. (monitoring offi cer, case study B)
In such councils, good conduct as specifi ed in the ethical framework was identifi ed as part of the local ethos. Th is was exemplifi ed in case study A, in which the leader of the council described councillors in the following way:
I would say that the large majority of the members . . . are retired. Th ey’ve come into it in my view for the right reasons. Th ey’re not on the make any more. . . . I know it sounds a bit smug and I don’t mean it that way, but [they] are actually here to serve a purpose . . . As far as I’m aware they’re coming to make a diff erence, but not to make a diff erence to themselves.
Selfl essness and impartiality are thus represented as intrinsic to councillors’ individual identity in this authority. In case study B, this identity was described as more shared and corporate, with both offi cers and councillors explaining the council’s reputation of “doing good by doing right” (chief executive). A councillor suggested that he saw his role as essentially achieving the best outcome for the council as a whole, even to the extent of explaining tough, distribu- tive decisions that could not benefi t everybody (councillor, case study B). As well as normalizing conduct, the national authority of the ethical framework was deployed by key actors in case studies A and B in orchestrating the disqualifi cation of councillors engaged in poor conduct (fl outing planning regulations, social security fraud), but the fact that such councils were acknowledged as exemplify- ing good conduct also made it clear to the accused that they had transgressed important norms. Th us, their resignation was secured without full investigation and adjudication.
few. Political context was also a consideration (Fording, Miller, and Patton 2003), so we selected councils controlled by diff erent parties, both those that exemplifi ed stability of political control and those that had experienced recent changes. In order to examine whether implementation of the ethical framework was aff ected by the quality of the management more widely, we included councils that had scored “excellent” or “good” in the Audit Commission’s Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA), as well as those that had fared less well.
In our interviews, we encouraged respondents to talk about the nature of politics in their local authority, whether they felt there were issues with conduct, and what caused and perpetuated those behaviors, without imposing the prior assumption that ethics regulation may be a signifi cant factor. Interviewees were invited to talk about misconduct incidents, their causes, and how they were dealt with. Th e number of interviews per case study (15 on average) allowed for patterns to emerge. Th e analysis presented here draws heavily on these accounts. First, we outline in broad terms the ways
Table 2 Contextual Information on the Nine Case Study Councils
Case Study Thumbnail Sketch
A A relatively affl uent district in southern England where most residents enjoy a high quality of life. The council has achieved “excellent” CPA scores and has been proactive in helping parishes implement the ethical framework. The district has experienced very few cases under the code of conduct; a few have arisen at the parish level.
B A London borough in a socially diverse part of the capital with pockets of affl uence and deprivation. The council has experienced “excellent” CPA scores and has been proactive in its approach to ethical governance. The borough has experienced very few cases under the code of conduct.
C A small district in the Midlands in a relatively deprived area where traditional industries have declined. The council has improved its CPA score over time (to “good” most recently). There have been a large number of complaints under the code of conduct, most among members and between offi cers and members.
D A relatively affl uent and fast-expanding district in southern England with a largely rural area. The council has received “fair” CPA scores but has experienced problems with its corporate govern- ance, including a large number of complaints under the code of conduct, most of them among members and between offi cers and members.
E A unitary council in the north of England that covers a largely rural area with an affl uent population. The council has achieved “excel- lent” CPA scores and few complaints under the code. The large majority of complaints come from the parish councils in the area.
F A largely urban unitary authority in the north of England serving a population that is economically and ethnically diverse. The council has achieved a four-star performance score in the CPA and has generated a moderate number of complaints under the code of conduct.
G A unitary council in southern England with a mostly affl uent population. The council has recorded “good” CPA scores and has generated a moderate number of complaints under the code of conduct, though more so from among its parishes.
H A small district council in the Midlands with an affl uent population. The council has recorded “poor” CPA scores and generated a large number of complaints about misconduct under the code, most of them by members against other members.
I A socially diverse and, in places, very deprived metropolitan area in the north of England. The council has achieved “poor”/“fair” CPA scores but neither a large number nor a consistent pattern of com- plaints under the ethical framework. A few of these cases involved unlawful behavior.
34 Public Administration Review • January | February 2014
committee explained that “at the fi rst meeting, one of the council- lors immediately said they couldn’t stay long so all the rest did the same. Th ey weren’t really interested.” She concluded from this and other experiences that the councillors disliked having independents sitting on a council committee.
Th ese identities and affi liations shaped the extent to which the ethi- cal framework—as a series of normalizing and disciplinary prac- tices—actually exerted any infl uence. In case study C, traditional party alignments had been in decline. One interviewee explained that some councillors had been reported to the Standards Board on a number of occasions, but “[t]heir attitude to life, which is negative and aggressive, will not be changed by the code of conduct. Th ey don’t respect it. Th e ethical framework has made no diff erence to them” (councillor, case study C). One of the “accused” claimed that he had been told that he was being suspended because he was damaging the public perception of the council, but he argued that the public was totally behind him. He pointed to people coming up to him in social situations to express their support as evidence for this position and the fact that he continued to be reelected: “I’m a man of honour. My standards are far higher than those in the council.” In case study D, a district council in an affl uent part of rural southern England, the council lacks a signifi cant urban focus or spatial identity. In this context, representing village interests takes
preeminence, and some councillors give more weight to whether they get reelected than eth- ics regulation.
Th is resistance was observed in the face of disciplinary sanctions, which included the provision of training on the code of conduct and suspensions for misconduct:
You’ve got people that are quite willing to take on advice and listen and take on the training. People that naturally just respond to it. And I suppose we’ve got other coun- cillors who were more antagonistic towards
it. So I think initially probably they didn’t take on board the training. It’s almost like they weren’t interested in listening. (deputy monitoring offi cer, case study C)
One sphere in which it has proved diffi cult to translate ethical principles into consistent action is processes for registering and declaring interests, especially at the parish level, which is the lowest tier of local government (Macaulay and Lawton 2006b). Viewed from a governance perspective, this might be seen as essentially an issue of learning the new demarcations of acceptable conduct—of councillors registering their personal interests correctly, then recog- nizing when they may have a personal and/or prejudicial interest that would prevent them from taking part in a particular council decision. Th is is a sphere in which the Standards Board issued additional guidance, and the extent of the problem diminished over time. However, the diffi culties arising from this part of the code were not simply attributable to a failure to learn or to councillors deliberately using their position to promote a personal interest. Rather, some councillors had diffi culty conforming to the idea that being a councillor means “abstracting” oneself from interests that tie them to particular places, issues, and social groups when they see
Th e ethical framework also seemed to be operationalized most eff ectively when the identities that it fostered were already strongly refl ected in political practices. Case study B is one example: interviewees identifi ed their council as a proactive adopter of New Labour modernizing policies. Another is case study G, in which the council was a product of a relatively recent reorganization (1996). Th is replaced the former, smaller district councils, with their strong attachment to place-based communities and a reputation of bul- lying, with a larger council in which politics was said to be more detached and professionalized. Key offi cers and councillors already felt themselves to be displaying good conduct consistent with a “modernizing” local authority. Th is council provided good services and produced low levels of misconduct.
Our fi ndings suggest that a culture of ethical behavior consistent with the code was already developed, or was in the process of being developed, within some local councils and that the various activi- ties—such as training—acted to reinforce a prevailing ethos rather than coercing it. However, this has not been the experience of ethics regulation everywhere. Evidence suggests that monitoring offi cers believe that the ethical framework has exerted a positive eff ect on conduct, but others, notably, councillors outside cabinet structures, feel that standards of conduct have remained the same or even deteriorated (BMG 2008). It appears that people who are “inside” the ethical framework, with some capacity to infl uence its implementation, appreciate it more than those who are subject to it; it is appreciated least by those who perceive themselves to have been marginalized by local government modernization. Impacts also diff ered markedly between our case studies. In some councils, changing the prevailing norms of conduct proved diffi cult because of the institutionalization of certain behaviors (Doig and Skelcher 2001). We found councillors resisting the ethical framework in a variety of ways, but also evidence of its deliberate subversion.
Resistance to Identities As discussed earlier, modern forms of discipline (in a Foucauldian sense) are not simply about domination but also subjectifi cation, yet it is this very “process . . . through which individuals are regu- lated [that] also provide[s] the basis from which resistance to such government can be articulated” (McNay 1994, 123). Our research supports this suggestion. We found resistance to the identities being placed on councillors—that they should be detached from their communities and primarily loyal to the council as a collective entity. However, some individuals sought not only to resist what they saw as the overbearing imposition of norms but also, in some instances, to capitalize on this politically by asserting their own independ- ence and individuality. Several councillors pointed out that they had been elected by their local communities as their representative and thus should act with this conception of the public interest in mind—even if this meant behaving in ways that would be classed as misconduct under the ethical framework. Some politicians resented the role of appointed independent members of standards commit- tees making judgments about their behavior. In case study C, a deprived former mining area, the member of the public chairing the
It appears that people who are “inside” the ethical framework, with some capacity to infl uence
its implementation, appreci- ate it more than those who are subject to it; it is appreciated least by those who perceive
themselves to have been mar- ginalized by local government
Managing Politics? Ethics Regulation and Confl icting Conceptions of “Good Conduct” 35
What might be presented by one person as a helpful reminder of the rules is interpreted by another as a “threat.” Councillors in other case studies, too, expressed concern at the ethical framework being used to provide a system of control, curtailing their freedom to question or challenge offi cers by categorizing such conduct as “bul- lying” or “bringing the council into disrepute.”
An unexpected fi nding of the research was that so many interviewees related the inci- dence of misconduct problems or complaints to wider changes in the political management arrangements and the resulting reallocation of power. Case study D had a long tradition of independent councillors (i.e., of councillors that were not members of political parties), but this shifted throughout the 1980s and 1990s to a situation in which independents were just one part of a multiparty govern- ment. What brought issues of conduct to a
head was the end of the long tradition of political parties and inde- pendents being represented proportionately on committees. Th is was replaced by a “modernized” cabinet system, which was con- stituted solely by members of the dominant party. In this context, misconduct complaints proliferated, and it was suggested that the ethical framework provided a further means by which the majority group could curtail the infl uence of minority groups and individu- als: “that group is now starting to use the code of conduct . . . to keep people in line if they displease it” (councillor, case study D).
Th is was not the only dynamic at work. In some of our cases, we encountered the suggestion that using the code to make complaints provided a way of ensuring that the voices of those members who believed themselves to be disempowered were heard by the ruling group (see also Smulian 2009). Sometimes this was characterized in dismissive terms, for example: “I think they use the code of conduct occasionally as an opportunity to fl ex their muscles and to cause some disruption” (chair of standards committee, case study H). But others, and not just the perpetrators, recognized the rationale:
Th ey [independent members] have realised that the way to shall we say force co-operation from people who don’t have any other control is to challenge them through the standards. And they’re using standards as a weapon . . . Nobody likes having to explain themselves in great detail and depth, which is what the standards committee is looking at; “why did you do that?,” “what’s happened here?” So they use it as an alterna- tive means of debate, if you want to put it that way. And good luck to them. It’s very clever. (councillor, standards committee member, case study C)
As Levi (1997) suggests, it is entirely possible for individual acts of non- compliance or subversion of the rules to result in changes in both policy and institutional arrangements. Not only are the powerful forced to account for themselves, as in the foregoing quote, but also the “misuse” of the ethical framework complained about in case study C resulted in the constitution being changed to allow more debate in council.
In some instances, the subversion of ethics regulation also appears to be designed to attract and channel public attention. For those
representing those interests as intrinsic to their identity as a council- lor. One of our case studies, in particular, faced this situation, where the council’s reputation on ethical issues was aff ected by poor levels of conduct at the parish level. Th e monitoring offi cer refl ected,
We’ve had diffi culties with a particular parish, a particular councillor of [name of parish] who doesn’t seem to under- stand what declarations of interest mean. [It’s] like an ingrained sort of refusal to accept the code . . . they say, “well you know we can’t possibly operate like that because everybody in this . . . it’s such a small place everybody knows every- body else” . . . Th ey think that it’s almost optional for them. (case study E)
Th is problematizing of the ability of council- lors to act on behalf of what they see as their interests is one way in which resistance to the ethical framework refl ects confl icting interpretations of good conduct for politicians. We now turn to ways in which resistance was connected to the reorganization of local politics by central government. In line with Philp’s (2001) observations, this can entail not just explicit rejection of the rules but also their tactical deployment.
Subversion and the Exercise of Power Th e potential for the code of conduct to be subverted by council- lors—that is, to use it for their own ends rather than ensuring com- pliance with a set of standards—materialized in some of our case studies (see also Macaulay and Lawton 2006a). In some councils, it was widely perceived that councillors made misconduct allegations about political opponents, which were often viewed dismissively as little more than a playing out of “tit-for-tat” personal or political animosities. Th us, for example, a councillor told us that “the code of conduct off ers people the ideal way of leveling scores” (case study D). In case study F, a northern urban council with a record of good management, the leader of the council complained that the ethical framework has “given weapons to people to cause mischief where mischief shouldn’t really be made.”
Rather than dismissing such behavior as simply aberrant, if we view the complaints system from a Foucauldian perspective as a “relation- ship of power” (Foucault 1982)—as a mode of action that acts on the present or possible future actions of others—we can begin to see how some complainants have sought to infl uence the potential future actions of those they have complained about. According to some interviewees, ethics regulation was perceived as being used by those in power to curtail the political activities of others, not just between local councillors but also practiced by senior offi cers:
Th e monitoring offi cer is not averse to threatening . . . people that they could be in breach of the code of conduct if they aren’t very careful. And you think . . . well I refuse to be cowed by all this, but it’s very bad. And again of course it does nothing whatever to enhance the reputation of the code of conduct . . . because you think it’s just there as a big stick to be used against anyone who dares ask tough questions. (coun- cillor, case study D)
An unexpected fi nding of the research was that so many
interviewees related the inci- dence of misconduct problems or complaints to wider changes
in the political management arrangements and the resulting
reallocation of power.
36 Public Administration Review • January | February 2014
tacitly drew on the social power of its misconduct categories in their denunciation of others. Moreover, the councillors who were subject to complaints rarely saw themselves as unethical; often, they simply appealed to other legitimating processes. However, a Foucauldian perspective alerts us to the ways in which the governmental practices designed to align behavior with these values can still be subject to intense dispute, even if the broad moral code is relatively unchal- lenged (Rabinow 1984), with the diffi culty of specifying the operational meaning of these values being both a cause and eff ect of confl ict.
Our second set of fi ndings is that the appropriation of the ethi- cal framework to infl uence the actions of others was not, as its proponents might have hoped, confi ned to those seeking to maintain good conduct. We also found that dominant individuals or groups used the ethical framework to preserve their positions, suppress dissenting voices, and damage challengers. An important pattern is that (mis)use of the ethical framework was often linked to wider tensions with New Labour’s political modernization of local government, designed to achieve clear lines of account- ability and executive power. Th ose who perceived themselves as marginalized by this concentration of power deliberately used the standards system to exercise voice. Th is is a clear illustration of the potentially contradictory dimensions of “good governance,” not all of which are contained within ethical governance frame- works, and a reminder to researchers and practitioners to be alert to the side eff ects of ethical governance reforms and what they might reveal.
Th ese patterns inform our third fi nding: that the challenges and repercussions of seeking to change political conduct using codifi ed conceptions of good conduct can render ethics regulation rather unstable. Indeed, mounting resentment refl ecting the types of prob- lems that we observed in our research—around perceived restric- tions to members’ representative roles, the usurping of the electoral mandate, and the “encouragement of vexatious complaints”— combined with wider dissatisfaction about the complexity and bureaucracy of the ethical framework to create a wider network of opposition within local government and beyond. Th is culminated in the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats going into the May 2010
general election with a promise to abolish the ethical framework; the “central imposition” of the ethical framework was just one discourse of opposition (axing unnecessary agencies to cut public expenditure was another), but abo- lition has led to a scalar rebalancing of the for- mal practices by which good conduct in local politics is to be determined and achieved. National prescription, codes, and procedures have become minimal, as more faith is placed in electoral accountability and the fail-safe of the criminal justice system.
Our fi ndings have wider implications for the project of ethics regulation, especially for reg- ulating the conduct of politics and our expec-
tations of what such enterprises could achieve. As we have seen, politicians routinely rationalize their actions through a number of relationships—to party, constituency, local communities, or the
without conventional means of exercising infl uence, some form of denunciation of those in power off ers a simple device for attracting attention and undermining authority (Dibben and Bartlett 2001): in Scott’s (1985) terms, it might be seen as a “weapon of the weak.” Th e existence of the ethical framework has allowed its deployment as a “scandal weapon” (Belzak 2008)—a means of discrediting opponents through recourse to the moral authority of a code of conduct and triggering assessment and investigation processes, all of which are likely to attract media attention. For example, in case study H, a small district council in an affl uent area but with a long history of member-to-member complaints, we were told by the leader of the opposition that he had carefully examined the register of members’ interests in council meetings to identify scope for mak- ing complaints. Th is is a pointed illustration of how the practices of ethics regulation, in problematizing categories of conduct and mak- ing them actionable, can then be used for unintended purposes.
Th ere are links here to our earlier discussion of political identities concerning the importance of councillors as public fi gures. Th ere is very little public knowledge or understanding of the role of coun- cillors in England (Councillors Commission 2007), which might explain why some councillors are prone to make more noise in order to raise their own profi les and make their work more obvious to the public. For example, one councillor explained that “there was a time when I felt that unless you’d had three or four complaints made against you, you could hardly call yourself a local politician of any standing” (councillor, case study H). In one council (case study C), we found comparatively little media coverage of standards issues, yet there was a history of contentious behavior that violated the rules of the ethical framework. Respondents suggested that there was almost an escalation of poor behavior (inappropriate language in this case) in a bid to be complained about. Again, we see that for some councillors, placing themselves outside the code of conduct became an element of their political identity: “Th ere is no shame in being taken to the Standards Board anymore—it is like a badge of honour” (councillor, case study C).
Conclusions Our fi ndings provide a vivid illustration of the diversity of eff ects that ethics regulation can exert when applied to politicians and the merits of using Foucauldian ideas to interpret them. Th e ethical framework for local government in England brought together an array of technolo- gies of government and the self to encourage the alignment of behavior with particular norms. While there is evidence that ethics regu- lation served to promote and reinforce good governance in some councils, our analysis also shows the considerable scope for resistance, both to the political identity of a councillor embodied in the code and through the use of ethics regulation practices to achieve political goals. Th ree sets of fi ndings follow from these patterns of resistance.
First, our research encountered very little overt resistance among councillors or offi cers to the basic princi- ples of good governance (honesty, accountability, selfl essness, etc.). Even those who subverted the ethical framework for political ends
While there is evidence that eth- ics regulation served to promote and reinforce good governance in some councils, our analysis also shows the considerable
scope for resistance, both to the political identity of a council- lor embodied in the code and
through the use of ethics regula- tion practices to achieve political
Managing Politics? Ethics Regulation and Confl icting Conceptions of “Good Conduct” 37
Acknowledgments We are grateful to participants at the Political Studies Association Conference, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2010, and the International Research Society for Public Management Annual Conference, Rome, 2012, for their insightful comments. We are also grateful to the three anonymous reviewers who provided clear, constructive comments that helped improve the article. Finally, we acknowledge the role of Standards for England in funding the research on which this article is based.
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