Bridging the gap between ethical theory and practice

On 9th – 10th October the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces, in conjunction with the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces (DCAF), co-hosted the 9th International Conference of Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces (ICOAF).

The annual conference, held at The Tower of London, is an “important international forum for promoting and ensuring democratic oversight of the armed forces”[1]. The highest attended ICOAF to date, over 90 delegates from 40 countries assembled to discuss a range of issues under the broad umbrella of “The Moral Compass of the Armed Forces: How Ombuds Institutions can Break Down Barriers to Achieve Change”.

With ethics being at the heart of the purpose of ombudsman institutions, ethical practice was a central theme of the conference and permeated discussion in each of the sessions. It was also a dominant theme on the first day and the conference was honoured to have Dr David Whetham attend the conference and run a dedicated session on ‘Ethical Practice in Ombuds Institutions and Armed Forces Environments’.

Dr Whetham’s dynamic and innovative presentation, which was the standout session of the two days, served to highlight the importance of bridging the gap between ethical theory and practice. A Reader in Military Ethics at King’s College and Director of the King’s Centre for Military Ethics, Dr Whetham works to foster ethical awareness and decision-making in military personnel across the globe. In this role, Dr Whetham has developed a number of tools to raise ethical awareness, including the Military Ethics Playing Cards – a set of cards like any other except that each one contains a question concerning an ethical issue common to the military environment.

The cards, which are designed to be used as a prompt for discussion and debate, have a QR web link to supporting information for each question enabling them to be used as part of formal or informal discussions.  The aim is to normalise discussion of ethical issues in order to improve ethical practice.

In his presentation, Dr Whetham highlighted the important role that ombudsman institutions for the armed forces play in ensuring there is continuous education in this area, and also in ensuring that ombudsman and their staff have such training to better enable them to investigate ethically ambiguous areas and make recommendations for change.

While focussed on the military environment, ethical practice and leadership is an important issue for all ombudsman institutions and there are broad lessons that can be drawn from Dr Whetham’s work to the benefit of the broad ombudsman community. To that end we are very pleased that Dr Whetham will be attending the next OA conference in Edinburgh in May 2018 to bring to life the issue of ethical practice and leadership.

Further information on the military ethics playing cards can be found at –