In 2005, Scotregen asked me to write a short piece about the role that ethics might play in the ‘regeneration field’. Its title ‘Time for Ethics?’ could be read in two different ways. Read in one way, it asked whether or not an ethical approach to regeneration might be timely in 2005. Read in another it can be construed as asking whether or not people have time for ethics. Even if, for whatever reason, the time was not right in 2005, and the political climate surrounding regeneration work was not conducive to encouraging ethical discussion, perhaps now is the time. Recent events have conspired to create a climate that is socially and politically ideal for discussions about ethical practice. The scandal of MP’s expense claims has reignited a willingness to discuss what is, and is not, acceptable conduct from our public employees and the impact of the banking crisis has also contributed to this shift; we are far more suspicious of the market and the profit motive and their role in improving our societies than we were back then.
Let us agree then that the time may be right; right for what exactly? What is an ethical approach? To my mind, the minimum it involves is professional behaviour that is governed by agreed principles and core values. What sets ethical principles apart from others is difficult to say, and up for debate, but the list of principles might include things like a commitment to justice or a respect for people’s dignity and autonomy. These examples themselves are open to different interpretations and so the articulation of core principles will require those involved in regeneration work to participate in the debate to identify and elaborate just what these core values are. The more people that get involved in the discussions, the more voices heard, the better the chance that a real consensus can be achieved, rather than one that represents only a subsection of the field.
But, returning to the second way of reading the title of the 2005 piece: do people have the time, or should they find it? What, a busy harassed worker may ask, is the point? And anyway, you seem to be implying that people in the field are not already acting ethically? The call for an ethical approach, that goes beyond individuals doing what they think is right, does not imply that regeneration stakeholders are not acting ethically, although some may be. What it does imply is that it may be better for all concerned if those striving to ‘do the right thing’ do not have to ‘go it alone’. The sort of collective approach, based on open debate about fundamentals and core values, has some very good reasons to recommend it. Here are some of the reasons why everyone should find time for ethics:
1. Regeneration is often described as a field – if not quite a profession. The field covers a wide range of functions and jobs. There may be professionals in the field – lawyers for example – who already have ethical codes; other workers may not. What all the jobs do have in common is that they are aiming to deliver regeneration. Other fields, also composed of very different jobs and functions, have ethics. A good example is medical ethics, or healthcare ethics. There is also business ethics; research ethics; legal ethics. In a sense the existence of codes of ethics is a mark of the maturity of a profession and the process of engaging in ethical debate may also give the field a more authoritative voice.
2. When one reflects for a moment on ‘regeneration’ one sees immediately that it is already a highly moral term and the language used in connection with it is also often ethically charged. If regeneration is, as Malcolm Fraser suggested, based on ‘empowering a community’, then this clearly has moral implications. If it is about fighting and overcoming disadvantage, or working with the excluded, or balancing economic and social interests, or a combination of all these, the concept has clear substantive ethical implications for action. An ethical approach to regeneration can help clarify an idea that already has strong ethical connotations. Of course, if regeneration is a field, then it is not harmonious. The meaning of the term is, as they say, ‘contested’. That it is contested will reflect the varied interests and perspectives of workers in the field, and even of those external to the day to day business of regeneration. By encouraging wide-ranging ethical debate over key values and meanings, we can reveal the often implicit differences, conflicts of interest and political tensions. This last point is, in my view, extremely important for the regeneration field because of the difficulties involved in achieving the balance between meeting the needs of citizens, as they may see it, and being seen to follow government policy and guidelines to ensure funding. One example of this that needs little introduction is the debate surrounding the notion of ‘partnerships’ and how some general assumptions about what that meant were able to silence some, and hide the conflicts of interest that were there from the start. One might speculate that an ethical approach, as outlined here, could have gone some way to making the partnerships a lot more successful than they have been.
3. Another reason to make time for an ethical approach is that it may make the job easier. If you can predict the behaviour of other workers in the field, or at least have some measure of what ethical standards to expect, this can be helpful. It will kick-start a process – for ethics is a process – that will allow everyone to do their jobs more effectively by highlighting ethical tensions in the field and developing the language and the media through which collective understandings and solutions can be sought.
4. The consensus sought by an ethical approach as the upshot of open and searching debate may serve to protect workers from being forced to do things they think are unethical. In the absence of any code or agreement about this, it may be harder to resist the pressures to work in particular ways, sometimes exerted by external agencies.
5. Finally, such an approach allows you – the workers in the field – to have a say in what ‘goes’ in regeneration. It allows you to take some control.
In a way, all of this is common sense. However, in a climate where ethics is back on the agenda, where even big business has felt the need to ‘go ethical’, it is imperative that the ‘regeneration field’, which is nothing if not engaged in an ethical enterprise, find the time to articulate its shared goals and values.
If you don’t do it, someone else might do it for you.