The Nolan Principles and Powerful Questions

As it’s an election year, it had us at Gef thinking about what makes the ideal public representative and the ideal leader.

Handily, there are a couple of standards and tests that have been set down for people working in public office which we think are all worth considering when it comes to casting our votes this year.


The first standards to consider are the Nolan Principles, which while they have an air of some centuries old guidelines for politicians handed down from British Prime Ministers, from Walpole to Johnson, they actually only date back to 1994. In that year, the UK gov established the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The committee was chaired by Lord Nolan, and was tasked with making recommendations to improve standards of behaviour in public life.

The committee’s first report established what have become known as the seven principles of public life or the Nolan Principles. In the time since then they have perhaps become less frequently adhered to, but they form the backbone of what we consider to be proper behaviour in public office. 

The Seven Principles Underpinning Public Life

On the island, we have this catchy title for the Nolan principles which exists within the Government Code and say that holders of Public Office should at all times exercise the highest standards of behaviour in line with the seven principles of public life which are as follows:


Holders of Public Office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or other friends.


Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.


In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.


Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.


Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.


Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.


Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example. All candidates who put themselves forward for public appointment must be able to demonstrate their commitment to the principles and values of public service.

The Benn Questions

In light of it being an election year, we just wanted to also highlight five questions that we should ask of all candidates and in fact anyone who does work in the name of public service and they come from icon of the left Tony Benn. For decades he would remind people to ask five questions: 

  1. What power have you got?
  2. Where did you get it from?
  3. In whose interests do you use it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. How do we get rid of you?

Regarding the last question, he said: ‘Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system. Only democracy gives us that right. That is why no one with power likes democracy. And that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it—including you and me, here and now.’

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