Building a culture of ethical conduct in Kuwaiti public life

Sir Nick Harvey is a former Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats.  He previously served five terms as a Lib Dem MP over twenty-three years, and was a Defence Minister in the UK’s coalition government formed in 2010. He recently supported GPG in our work with the anti-corruption authority of Kuwait. In this blog, he explores the challenges faced by all public bodies seeking to foster a culture of ethical conduct amongst their institution.

As a British Parliamentarian and later Minister, I believed the UK to have and to maintain high standards in public life.  This reading has been shaken in more recent times. Scandals in our banking sector, media organisations, churches, children’s homes, and over Parliamentary expenses have shaken such complacent perceptions – culminating most recently in a new low, with a British Prime Minister forced out of office in disgrace after serial dishonesty and misconduct.

So, we Brits need to tread carefully in sharing our experiences abroad and to recognise with humility that others might learn both from what we do well – and also from our mistakes!

Mercifully, both our political and administrative institutions have remained relatively free from petty corruption, which can be endemic in some parts of the world. We pressed a ‘reset’ button in the 1990s, when John Major’s Government wrestled with allegations of political ‘sleaze’ and established the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Its publication of ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’ has proved seminal in underpinning Codes of Conduct in our Parliament and throughout public service, including the Ministerial Code, which came to fruition under Tony Blair’s Government after decades of bizarre secrecy.

The seven principles are: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. These have been picked up and used in other parts of the world as well.

As an MP and Minister, I was conscious of these principles in a practical sense, manifesting themselves in a strong moral obligation to give truthful account of all relevant information – and to take swift steps to correct any mistakes. The Register of Interests is a good example, along with the obligation on Ministers to surrender any gifts they receive beyond a token value.

Taking difficult operational decisions as a defence minister, I had to consider what the court of world opinion – not to mention public inquiries – would make of the judgements we had to make quickly and in pressured circumstances.

Since then, as a GPG Associate, I have been part of teams giving advice and support in several developing countries and have been mindful that we cannot just export a British ‘model’ for how to do things. Context, culture and different experiences – which are interesting and important to learn about – fashion not only what is possible, but also what is desirable and appropriate.

When Kuwait asked GPG for support in helping it drive towards higher standards in public life, this promised to be an interesting and worthwhile challenge.

Led by the Emir, Crown Prince and Prime Minister, Kuwait is making a determined effort to address a deep-rooted culture of corruption. The country, with around 80% of the population employed in some branch of the public sector, scores poorly on the Corruption Perception Index. Effecting a significant improvement on that front will be of major importance to Kuwait’s future economic and investment performance.

In 2016, Kuwait legislated to create an expert independent anti-corruption authority called Nazaha, meeting the requirements of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) to ensure the existence of bodies to prevent corruption. The vision is to build ‘a New Kuwait, on a foundation of trust that would embody the principles of transparency, accountability and the rule of law, with all parties striving in unison to eliminate corruption’. To this end, their mission is ‘to promote values of integrity and anti-corruption in the public and private sectors and society at large, thereby contributing to sustainable development.’

Nazaha subsequently produced an Integrity and Anti-Corruption Strategy for the five-year period 2019-24, which identifies four pillars for its drive: public and private sectors, wider society, and specialised bodies, and sets out goals, priorities, and initiatives for each.

Since 2019 GPG has worked with Nazaha to support the design of a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the public sector, establishing standards of behaviour in public life, designing an enforcement regime, and increasing public awareness and understanding of key issues of integrity. From the outset the project has been a collaboration, driven by the joint inputs of both GPG and Nazaha, and has deployed GPG’s distinctive approach, in creating pockets of good practice and a ‘ripple effect’, in seeking long-term sustainable change. 

That work was, inevitably, interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and forced all of us online instead of meeting in person, but in March of this year, we were able to return to Kuwait and work directly with our colleagues in Nazaha.  The visit comprised GPG’s Greg Power and Associates Dr Hannah White and Sir Nick Harvey, who had contributed to the project alongside Sir Paul Silk since its early days.

The in-person meetings we held with the senior officials confirmed that, whilst Zoom remains a fantastic tool to overcome distance and pandemic restrictions, it struggles to capture the subtleties and nuances of human interaction, and the incentives at work inside every organisation.  We were therefore delighted to be able to work closely with Nazaha’s senior officials to address those often-intangible difficulties that every change initiative has to manage.  It was a remarkably successful week, during which we were able to develop an innovative new strategy for the promotion of public sector ethics and the adoption of a wide-ranging code of ethical conduct. 

The key point on which all of this initiative turns is the fact that simply drafting and enforcing a code of conduct will, by itself, achieve very little.  It’s success ultimately depends on increasing awareness and understanding of both the principles and practice of ethical conduct.  Changing the rules will have no lasting effect, unless those affected by it believe the new rules to be useful and helpful in what they are trying to achieve.  As GPG has always stressed, sustainable change is behavioural change. 

Those principles were at the core of the implementation plans, and we now look forward to working with Nazaha on the next phase of this process.  Starting with a handful of public sector agencies, we will support Nazaha to pilot the new processes, refine the enforcement mechanisms and increase awareness across the sector.  The intention is to get the small things right first, and then roll out these new practices to ever-widening parts of public agencies.  

Although any efforts to tackle corruption and improve public trust in government are immensely complex, and rarely show quick results, we hope that this approach with Nazaha – emphasising collaboration, behavioural change and incremental progress – will in the next few years start to result in a marked shift in the performance of, and attitudes towards, Kuwait’s public sector.