Monday, 30 January 2012

On Values

Today I took part in a seminar on values and behaviours at the University.  This is part of a process commissioned by the University Council to come up with a statement encapsulating what we recognise to be our values as an organisation. 

It sounds like the sort of worthy exercise beloved of all self-respecting boards and committees: we have the strategic aims and KPIs, we have the plan and smart objectives, now let's deal with the 'how' as well as the 'why', 'what' and 'when': how we do what we do, the value 'brand' that identifies who we (believe we) are and aspire to be.  And true enough, the consultants' paperwork had plenty of corporate-speak, that tiresome language that is often no more than code for: 'we know the organisational theory and have learned the discourse; we are to be taken seriously, and even if we are an educational institution - or a church - we can hold our own in the tough world of business'. 

Actually, the exercise was a lot more interesting - and difficult - than that.  Once we got beyond wordsmithing, recycling the familiar slogans and formulae that any committee could come up with, we got into some really interesting debates.  We agreed that we wanted to find a fresh language that would genuinely capture what Durham stands for, and how it is distinctive.  I asked questions about wisdom, knowledge, justice, generosity and truth: weren't these the kind of values we should be aspiring to, and encouraging one another to emulate? 

There was a lot of talk about 'excellence in all things' until someone said that this was not necessarily a virtue: wisdom consists in knowing when to be content with what is 'good enough' so as to release energy and resource to focus on what does need to be truly excellent.  Trivial example: a top-flight academic, taking a 15 minute meal break while engaged in world-class pioneering research, might not crave 'excellence' in sustenance, but be content with a 'good-enough' mug of tomato soup and a cheese sandwich instead.  So 'good enough when we need it to be' might be an important value too.

In the Cathedral the Chapter and others have spent several months working on a purpose statement.  It has been a rewarding journey.  We now need to do a similar piece of work on our own values.  I am hoping to learn from the University how we might do this, but tonight convinced me that it is not a task that can be accomplished quickly.  And even when we have a form of words that we recognise as 'us', it can take years for the process of 'reception' to happen so that the values are lived out in all that we do at every level. 

Meanwhile, we could do worse than embed the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life into our organisations, and ask all leaders and trustees to sign up to them.  These are:

  • Selflessness – Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.

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

  • Objectivity – 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.

  • Accountability – 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.

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

  • Honesty – 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.

  • Leadership – Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

  • Hard to improve on, I think.  Unless it is by adopting the values of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.3-8). 

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