Getting the public ethics right

Corruption is more than a question of individual criminal actions. It is also the result of systemic failure. There is a way to combat it. 

What is an ethics infrastructure? The term might sound like quite a mouthful, and yet it has become a cornerstone in a comprehensive strategy to fight against public-sector corruption in modern

democracies. As far as public-sector ethics are concerned, corruption is a management problem. It spawns in conditions where even the finest laws do not make it beyond the statute books and where weak public institutions fail to enforce the rules or provide adequate control, oversight and transparency.

Integrity is a fundamental condition of democratic government. And countering corruption and promoting public integrity are critical components of sustaining economic development and making a successful transition to a market economy.

Corruption is therefore not a cause, but a symptom of breakdown. To understand it means to address the factors influencing ethical behaviour in the public service. Which brings us back to our notion of an ethics infrastructure. OECD countries employ a range of tools and processes to discourage undesirable behaviour and to provide incentives for good conduct. They issue basic codes of conduct which employees are expected to abide by, like rules about protocol, behaviour and promotion.

High standards of behaviour are required in high places, too, with senior staff being asked to lead by example, including operating in a transparent manner. There is no single method or miracle cure for stamping out public-sector corruption. Rather, a combination of incentives and sanctions is needed to encourage the right professional standards of conduct. It is the sum of these approaches that makes up an ethical infrastructure.

Different strokes

As one would expect of an infrastructure, all of the functions and separate elements that sustain it should be mutually reinforcing. Three building blocks hold the infrastructure up; they are control, guidance and management. These are all vital concepts and they are reflected in public management in all OECD countries. However, the emphasis given to one or other of them varies from country to country, probably for historical, political and cultural reasons.

Control is essentially a regulatory dimension, a legal framework which assures independent investigation and prosecution in the public sector, as well as full accountability, transparency and scrutiny. It is an approach which is particularly emphasised in the United States. Where rules exist, the control element ensures that they are implemented.

Guidance on the other hand relies more on leadership, personal responsibility and showing by example. Whereas under the control concept, problems have one solution, guidance sees not problems but dilemmas. And dilemmas can have several possible solutions. It is the managers’ job to find the best one. The guidance approach is liked in the Scandinavian public sector and in the United Kingdom as well. Convention (though not necessarily conservatism) is a powerful force underpinning guidance, which is usually bolstered by codes of conduct, as well as professional education and the communication of values.

The third building block in the ethics infrastructure is management. European countries tend to lay emphasis on this approach of laying down practices and policies and seeing to it that the ethical system works on a routine basis. In most cases, management is the responsibility of the ministries themselves to deal with. But in a handful of countries it is handled by special outside bodies, such as the Public Service Commission in Ireland or the powerful US Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which is a sort of transparency watchdog, handling among other things the financial disclosure of high-ranking officials, including the president.

These ideas are quite subtle and building an ethics infrastructure can be confusing for governments and public-sector managers. Take whistleblowing, for example, which on the face of it seems a rather straightforward business; if an employee spots wrongdoing, he or she reports it. But are employees obliged to be whistleblowers and will their employment rights be protected? What if whistleblowing is abused and interferes with government business? Such questions are still the subject of intense debate in the OECD.

Visible costs

Arguably the most important ingredient of a healthy public sector is transparency. Transparency shows how much the three underpinning elements of control, management and guidance interact. It relies on leadership and example, but also basic rules which guarantee responsibility, accountability and scrutiny. And transparency has to be managed as a routine matter. After all, the public has an ongoing right to know how their institutions apply the power and resources entrusted to them. The OECD now argues that public-sector decision-making should be visible and open to independent scrutiny in all manner of ways. Even advertising job vacancies is a form of transparency which is sorely lacking in several countries.

Information disclosure systems and a healthy and independent media are also forms of transparency which cannot be taken for granted.

Interestingly, building a transparent and trustworthy public sector may actually bring real economic savings. More evidence needs to be gathered on this, but the hypothesis is a valid one: that transparency reduces the overhead costs by reducing the need to create parallel institutions. A government sector which lacks an ethics infrastructure is likely to spend more money on ways to improve its trustworthiness.

In some developing countries, several anti-corruption agencies can be found in the same public sector investigating each other’s activities, which is a sign of the divisions and feelings of mistrust that are rife in some governments.

Getting the ethics infrastructure right is obviously about more than saving money. It is about progress, about upgrading the mission of government for the 21st century. That means building on values like honesty, rights and democracy. And for governments it may be the only way forward. For as Edmund Burke warned, a state without the means of change is without the means of its own conservation.


OECD, Recommendation on Improving Ethical Conduct in the Public Service, 1997.

©OECD Observer No 220, April 2000 

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