Rebuilding the UK’s Ethical Infrastructure by Prof. David Grayson

09 May 2024


“People are being left suicidal by the state of public services in Britain, the body responsible for investigating complaints against the government and the NHS has said.”

So began an article in The Times (State of public services in the UK ‘leaves people suicidal’ by Kate McGann, 23 March 2024). The article quotes Rebecca Hilsenrath, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, commenting on a new report she has issued: warning of “a total breakdown in trust between citizens, in the public in this country and state services.”

The same edition of The Times had an article about a new book called Downward spiral: Collapsing public standards and how to restore them by John Bowers, a KC, part-time judge and principal of Brasenose College, Oxford.  Bowers highlights breaches of the ministerial code; abuses of ministerial patronage such as appointments to the House of Lords and “partygate” – the repeated breaches of Covid restrictions by politicians and their advisors.  Bowers writes “the rule of law is threatened when those who make the law, treat it as unimportant”.

There is no shortage of egregious examples compounding the public’s loss of trust in politicians and government and public institutions:

  • The Post Office Horizon IT scandal and the prosecution of hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters
  • The go slow on compensation for haemophiliacs infected with tainted blood products
  • The so-called “VIP fast lane” and profiteering from the sale of PPE at the height of the Covid crisis.

Two days after the articles quoted above appeared, The Times front page led with an article on a new report from Dame Sara Khan, the Prime Minister’s independent advisor on social cohesion, describing the “shockingly widespread nature” of threats and intimidation in UK public life, finding that three quarters of people were self-censuring for fear of what she termed “freedom-restricting harassment”.

Challenges to civilised, rigorous public debate and to disagreeing respectfully; loss of trust in public institutions are all deeply corrosive in themselves but also threaten national security, especially in a multi-cultural society like the UK.  If citizens don’t trust fellow citizens or those in authority, it makes them all the more susceptible to dis and mis-information from hostile foreign states and their agents. Happily, the majority (70%) of people in the UK reported that, in general, they trust most people, according to recent research from the Office of National Statistics – but look at the low levels of trust that citizens have in government or in parliament.

A graph of a law enforcement officer

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

And it is not only public sector bodies where trust has declined. Business is not widely trusted to do the right thing either. The Institute of Business Ethics has been conducting an annual survey of the British Public’s perception of business ethics for 20 years. In recent years, what we might call an “Ethical British Business Index” (defined as the percentage of respondents to the IBE’s Attitudes of the British Public to Business Ethics survey, saying business generally behaves ethically minus the percentage saying it behaves unethically) has been negative.  This is despite the best efforts of many organisations such as the IBE, Business in the Community, Blueprint for Better Business, B-Lab UK, Good Business Charter and many others. Now, some may say the UK has more pressing, immediate problems than a loss of trust. The Resolution Foundation produced a major report in December 2023 together with the Centre for Economic Performance: Ending Stagnation - A New Economic Strategy for Britain – The final report of the Economy 2030 Inquiry. Certainly, the UK urgently needs capital expenditure, investment in up-skilling and re-skilling and in the physical infrastructure of the country but that still requires individual workers to feel motivated to give their discretionary effort and ideas and to “go the extra mile” in boosting productivity.

A lot of this is about good management, hence the importance of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) research with polling organisation YouGov which was published in October 2023. This shows that 82% of all new managers in the UK became managers without any formal management training. CMI argues that these “accidental managers” are an important contributor of Britain’s poor economic performance, hence the importance of the work of the CMI and other similar organisations committed to developing inclusive, ethical leaders and managers. Managers, however good, will still struggle if trust in society generally is low.  Hence, alongside rebuilding the UK’s physical and skills infrastructure, there needs to be a no less determined and sustained effort to rebuild the UK’s ethical infrastructure.

The IBE’s sister organisation, The Ethics Centre in Sydney, defines ethical infrastructure as “the formal and informal means by which society regulates the use of power by both public and private institutions to ensure it serves the common good.”

We might also think of “ethical infrastructure” as the tools and systems which communicate, monitor and reward ethical behaviour - or sanction unethical behaviour of citizens and organisations. Moreover, the ethical infrastructure is permeated by the overall ethical climate of a society. 

I have recently returned from Australia and what I learnt there might provide the nucleus for how the UK can go about rebuilding trust and strengthening its ethical infrastructure.

The Ethics Centre, in collaboration with two of Australia’s leading universities: the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, is launching the Australian Institute of Applied Ethics (AIAE). The intention is that in time the AIAE will operate a hub and spoke arrangement, with local presence, covering each Australian state and territory and with links to existing specialised centres of applied ethics (e.g. for sport, the military and oceans).

They have philanthropic backing plus commitments of $10 million from the two leading universities.

They are seeking federal government financing in the Australian federal government budget statement this month. The clever trick is, rather than proposing this come from taxpayers, that public funding would come from a small uplift in the penalties charged to companies for malfeasance - e.g. breaches of competition law, Department of Justice penalties, Tax authority fines etc.

They have the backing of some powerful, peak bodies:

  • the Australian Council of Trade Unions
  • The Business Council of Australia
  • the Australian Council of Social Services
  • the Australian Institute of Directors.

The arguments presented for the AIAE are interesting. As well as the economic case for improving trust in society and trust in public institutions by strengthening the ethical infrastructure of Australia (based on independent modelling done by Deloitte), they are also making a national security argument. Namely, that in a multicultural society like Australia, low levels of public trust in institutions and fellow citizens, makes the country more susceptible to dis- and mis-information that might be spread by hostile foreign powers or their agents.

Can we learn anything from the Australian initiative to help UK discussions? The IBE is keen to canvas ideas and join with others in exploring practical ideas, relevant to the UK context and institutional framework.

The good news is that we still have many positives as a country and as a society on which to build: a vibrant news media which can expose wrongdoing, the independence of the judiciary and the fact that the public is outraged by miscarriages of justice or cronyism. And there are already specific initiatives such as the recently established Public Sector Ethics Network which is building on work already happening in parts of the police service, the military, etc. to articulate an ethical framework more strongly.

If any readers are interested in a discussion about further rebuilding the UK’s ethical infrastructure and what forms this might usefully take, please do get in touch. We are keen to join with other, parallel, discussions that might be going on already, so as not to duplicate or reinvent wheels.


Professor David Grayson CBE
Professor David Grayson CBE


David is Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management. From 2007-2017, he was director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility and Professor of Corporate Responsibility.

David became Chair of the Trustees Board on 01 April 2019.

He joined Cranfield in April 2007, after a thirty year career as a social entrepreneur and campaigner for responsible business, diversity, and small business development. This included founding Project North East which has now worked in nearly 60 countries around the world; being the founding CEO of the Prince's Youth Business Trust and serving as a managing-director of Business in the Community.

David has an Honorary Doctorate of Law from London South Bank University and was a visiting Senior Fellow at the CSR Initiative of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard (2005-10).

He has served on various charity and public sector boards over the past 35 years. These have included the boards of the National Co-operative Development Agency, The Prince of Wales' Innovation Trust and the Strategic Rail Authority. He chaired the National Disability Council and the Business Link Accreditation Board; in each case appointed by the Major Government and re-appointed by the Blair administration. David now serves on the board of a financial services company in Asia where he leads on embedding ESG/sustainability and chairs the board’s Group Risk Management Committee.

He has previously chaired the national charity Carers UK and one of the UK's larger social enterprises and largest eldercare providers, Housing 21 during which the organisation made corporate history by becoming the first-ever not-for-profit successfully to acquire a publicly quoted group of companies. David received an OBE for services to industry in 1994 and a CBE for services to disability in 1999. He is a Companion of the Chartered Institute of Management.

David has written a number of books on responsible business and corporate sustainability including most recently: ‘All in - The Future of Business Leadership’ and The Sustainable Business Handbook – both with Chris Coulter and Mark Lee. He is part of the faculty of the Forward Institute and of the Circle of Advisers for Business Fights Poverty.

The Guardian has named David as one of ten top global tweeters on sustainable leadership alongside Al Gore, Tim Cook - CEO of Apple, and Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Read lessmore