Ethics and morality in public service

by Walter Jayandran

In the wake of recent revelations of criminal offences among public and community service officials, one is justified in asking whether there is a systemic problem of ethical behavior and morality defects in public service agencies. In fact, what are the causes of this increase in public and community service ethical lapses?

It appears that not much has been learnt about individual ethical fitness from the myriad corporate malfeisance , events of gigantic misappropriations such as in Enron, and the host of recent global financial institutional misdemeanors. There is growing concerns for a new focus on leadership criteria based on moral aptitude. If nothing is done to improve ethics and morality issues, the public will soon lose trust and confidence in these public service agencies.

Most of us have an internal ‘moral compass’ that indicates to us what is right and wrong with regard to our own thinking and actions and that of others. Integrity while difficult to define in a few words, could be defined as the personal quality of having high moral principles, being reliable (consistent), honest and trustworthy.

Ethical behaviour requires that we use our moral compass to guide us in our interactions with others. Ethical behaviour is also about the ability to inspire trust in others.

More often than not, discussions about ethics in organizations reflect only the “individualistic approach” to moral responsibility. According to this approach, every person in an organization is morally responsible for his or her own behavior, and any efforts to change that behavior should focus on the individual.

But there is another way of understanding responsibility, which is reflected in the “communal approach.” Here individuals are viewed not in isolation, but as members of communities that are partially responsible for the behavior of their members. So, to understand and change an individual’s behavior we need to understand and try to change the community.

Ethical behavior in business is critical. Personal moral standards have to be impeccable. How much more important is it to have the highest moral standards when one is in public service?

If ethics and morality are important for groups and organizations, they should also be important for public officials, and for very much the same reasons. York Willbern, in an article entitled “Types and Levels of Public Morality,” argues for six types or levels of morality (or ethics) for public officials. The six levels he differentiates are: basic honesty and conformity to law; conflicts of interest; service orientation and procedural fairness; the ethic of democratic responsibility; the ethic of public policy determination; and the ethic of compromise and social integration. For the purpose of this article, I shall highlight on the first three.

Public officials are given the trust of the public to develop and carry out policies that are in the public’s best interest. Living up to this trust has a significant impact on the national will; public confidence is essential to the exercise of national power. Thus public officials have a moral duty to act in a trustworthy manner.

This brings us to the question of how community leaders are identified and assessed and groomed. Are we to rely on just the recommendations of an MP ?

Much of a person’s ethical standards are formed through upbringing and the value system established within his or her family environment. Developing a moral compass later in life is not easy.

Ensuring ethical fitness in a proactive manner will result in preventive, rather than corrective, ethical management. We have read reports of many young foreigners being eager to serve in grassroots organizations. That is fine so long as proper screening and background checks are made to ensure proper motivation to serve the community. Is there a robust process in place to ensure the right people are engaged? Many organizations use psychometric tests that provide some insights into the personal motivations and hidden values, beliefs and attitudes that interviewers and recruiters may not pick up in interviews. As the saying goes in HR circles – “ hire right, manage easy.” Agencies also need to seek background information from past employers, and people who have interacted with the applicants in professional and other facets of the individual’s life. By obtaining inputs from varying sources, one can prevent potential ethical misadventures.

The organization as an ethical environment

At a minimum, a code of conduct must be in place, specific to the ethical issues confronted in the service. It should be the subject of ethics training that focuses on actual dilemmas likel Organizations must also ensure that perceived ethical violations are adequately investigated and that wrongdoing is punished. Research suggests that unless ethical behavior is rewarded and unethical behavior punished, written codes of conduct are unlikely to be effective.

Building an ethical climate

Basic honesty and conformity to law The public servant is morally bound, just as are other persons, to tell the truth, to keep promises, to respect the person and the property of others, and to abide by the requirements of the law.

Conflict of interest. This relates to public officials, because it deals with the conflict between advancing the public interest, which a public official is charged to do, and advancing one’s self-interest. The duty here is to ensure that the public interest comes first, and that one does not advance his own personal interest at the expense of the public.

Service orientation and procedural fairness. The moral obligation of public servants is to follow established procedures, and not to use their power to circumvent those procedures for their own convenience or benefit. Power must be used fairly and for the benefit of the public.

Specific Strategies

  • Establish rules which require public officials to give reasons for their official decisions;
  • Institute management approaches that enable public officials to deal assertively with corruption and unethical practice when they encounter it, even at the risk of offending their superiors.
  • ‘whistleblower’ protection law to protect appropriate ‘public interest disclosures’ of wrongdoing by officials;
  • ethics audits to identify risks to the integrity of the most important processes (for example financial management, tendering, recruitment and promotion, dismissal and discipline);
  • new Human Resource Management strategies (which link, for example, ethical performance with entry and advancement, and ethical ‘under-performance’ with disciplinary processes), merit based promotion and recruitment, anti-discrimination protection;
  • training and development in the content and rationale of Ethics Codes, the application of ethical management principles, the proper use of official power, and the requirements of professional responsibility, and
  • effective external and internal complaint and redress procedures.


Whatever the reasons or excuses for the failures by public and community leaders, it is hoped that the deterioration is arrested and resolved in order for public trust to be regained.

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