Propriety and ethics

Public confidence and trust in government communications is integral to maintaining trust in public institutions.  Like all civil servants, government communicators must carry out their work objectively and without political bias.  The Civil Service Code sets out the values and the behaviours that are required of all civil servants and are enshrined in law. The GCS Propriety Guidance defines how civil servants can present the policies and the programmes of the government of the day.  

In addition, the new GCS Propriety & Ethics training course will help you unpack aspects of propriety and ethics which are important in your role as a government communicator.  There is specific guidance covering Propriety in digital and social media, and a step by step guide on how to raise a concern.

What is propriety?

Propriety means acting ‘properly’ by following accepted standards of behaviour.  In the specific context of government communications, propriety means presenting the policies and programmes of the government of the day properly and effectively. To achieve this, government communications:

  • should be relevant to government responsibilities
  • should be objective and explanatory, not biased or polemical
  • should not be – and not liable to being misrepresented as – party political
  • should be conducted in an economic and appropriate way
  • should be able to justify the costs as expenditure of public funds

This is explored in more detail in the GCS Propriety Guidance

What is ethics?

Ethics refers to the moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour – a set of beliefs about what is morally right and wrong. 

For government communicators, ethics defines how we ought to communicate on behalf of the government.  The seven principles of public life, known as the ‘Nolan principles’, outline the ethical standards of behaviour to which everyone working in the public sector is expected to adhere.  They are explored in more detail in the GCS Propriety & Ethics training course and further information can be found in The Seven Principles of Public Life – GOV.UK

Codes of Conduct

The Cabinet Office is responsible for codes of conduct for civil servants, ministers and special advisers.

The Civil Service Code

The Civil Service Code outlines the core values – Integrity, Honesty, Objectivity, Impartiality – and the behaviours expected of civil servants to uphold these values. 

The Civil Service Code

All civil servants must apply the Code to their own work.  For government communicators, this is no different. This GCS Propriety Guidance helps to define how civil servants can properly and effectively present the policies and programmes of the government of the day.

The Ministerial Code

The Ministerial Code requires ministers to uphold the impartiality of the Civil Service. They must not ask civil servants to act in any way that conflicts with the Civil Service Code. Ministers must ensure that public resources, including property, are not used to support publicity for constituency work or party political activities.

Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct

The Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct sets out guidance for special advisers in relation to their work and that of civil servants. 

Contact us

If you have any questions about propriety, contact your line manager or Director of Communications in the first instance. If you require further clarification or advice, contact the GCS Propriety Team at