By Kevin Dunion, Convener, Standards Commission for Scotland

OUR recent survey of members and chairs on the boards of public bodies in Scotland, suggests a reluctance to complain, raising concerns that unacceptable behaviour, including bullying, harassment and disrespect, may be going unchallenged.

There are many more board members than councillors in Scotland, yet, when we compare the numbers of cases the Standards Commission has dealt with concerning breaches of the codes of ethical standards by local authority councillors as compared to members of public bodies, the balance is 15:1.

So, is the lack of complaints due to exemplary conduct or do members feel inhibited about complaining about their colleagues, even where possible breaches occur?

It is perhaps only to be expected that devolved public bodies, which operate in a less adversarial political context, would generate far fewer complaints regarding the conduct of members.

It is good news that the majority of the board members we surveyed said they are not aware of failings that could give rise to a complaint.Yet anecdotal and on-the-record evidence from elsewhere had suggested that significant failings have occurred in the recent past.

Now, in our survey, 16 per cent of board members report having witnessed – or experienced – poor behaviour including bullying and disrespect.

I am particularly concerned about the responses coming from health boards and integration joint boards (IJBs) which show the highest incidence of disrespectful behaviour (25 per cent). It is not clear why this is the case, but members of these bodies also reported the lowest sense of collective responsibility and the least satisfaction with training on the code of conduct when compared to other public bodies.

Overall, almost half of the respondents to our survey across all public bodies say they would be reluctant to complain formally. The reasons given range from fear of losing their job to a worry that their complaint will not be acted on. Even more worryingly, some stated they would rather resign than speak up.

Board culture can play a pivotal role in whether individuals feel comfortable making complaints and calling out behaviour they believe is unacceptable.

Whilst robust debate is a feature of public life, particularly in environments where party politics exist, this should not be a shield for sexism, bullying or harassment to hide behind. If members join a body where making dismissive comments, talking down to other members or even mocking them in front of the full board is apparently tolerated, it can be difficult to take a stand. But they should do. And if the issue is not addressed or resolved locally, they should feel confident about making a complaint.

So why does this matter?

If the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it is that poor behaviour should not be tolerated or ignored. If “bad” behaviour is going unchecked, then public bodies in Scotland are not promoting a culture of respect and inclusivity. The consequence will be competent but undermined members leaving, and able candidates being discouraged from applying.

Even more specifically, the Scottish Government’s guidance to members and chairs on public boards encourages “constructive challenge”. If dissenting opinions are being dismissed or suppressed, the challenge role that board members are expected to play on public bodies is diminished and could lead to failings in oversight and even service delivery.

Our task now as a commission, along with board chairs and ministers, is to promote a board culture that is respectful but also where members are assured of their right to challenge and complain where conduct falls short of the standards expected.