~by: Walter Jayandran~
Some readers may recall my last article on this subject in TOC a little more than a year ago (http://theonlinecitizen.com/2010/12/ethics-and-morality-in-public-service/) where I stated that there was the possibility of a systemic and potentially deep-rooted problem of ethics and morality in the public service. Since then we have had more instances of civil servants’ misdemeanours, notably:
- The SLA fraud case involving more than $12million;
- A clerical officer from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) charged for forgery, cheating, criminal breach of trust and conversion of proceeds of crime (offences committed over a four year period); and
- More recently, two scholars who helmed critical organizations in the MHA arrested for “serious personal misconduct” by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).
In June last year, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said commercial crime that includes fraud and cheating, rose by 13 per cent in 2010. It appears to still be on the rise. In the first six months of last year, 2,129 cases were reported. In comparison, 1,827 cases were reported in 2010. In a paper published in the Singapore Academy of Law, the authors attributed this disturbing trend to “economic development and the lure of living the high life”. In the aftermath of the SLA scandal, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told Parliament in November 2010 that the root cause was “human error” and not public sector procurement guidelines and rules, which were fundamentally sound.
As concerned citizens of Singapore, should we accept “human error” as the excuse in the wake of recent spate of fraud and corruption cases in the public sector? Corporate governance expert Mak Yuen Teen, Associate Professor of Accounting at the National University of Singapore Business School, said: “We need to take a long-hard look at ourselves – why is this happening, was there not enough due diligence when appointing people – as this could affect our image internationally, we’ve always ranked top three or four in the corruption perception index – I worry that this has made us complacent.”
A government elected by the people is said to ‘govern by consent’. This means that a reasonable level of public trust is of fundamental importance to the proper functioning of the government. The degree to which the public is prepared to trust government is strongly influenced by perceptions as to the general ethical standards of that government.
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.
Let’s just consider the importance of the first two types of morality for the purpose of this discussion:
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”. For public officials, there is an additional reason why it is important to adhere to these basic moral codes and laws: they have more power than the average member of the society, and hence more opportunity for violation of those codes or laws. There also is the negative example that misconduct by public officials provides.
Conflicts 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 or her personal interest at the expense of the public.
INFLUENCES ON ETHICAL BEHAVIOUR
Most of an individual’s ethical development occurs before entering an organization. The influence of family, religion, community, and school will determine individual values. The organization, to a large extent, is dealing with individuals whose value base has been established.
There are three qualities individuals must possess to make ethical decisions:
- The ability to recognize ethical issues and to reason through the ethical consequences of decisions, the ability see second and third order effects (one of the elements of strategic thinking);
- The ability to look at alternative points of view, deciding what is right in a particular set of circumstances. This is similar to the ability to reframe; and
- The ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, making a decision on the best information available.
As important as these individual characteristics are, the influence of the organization is equally important. The ethical standards that one observes in the organization will have a significant effect on individual behaviour. “People will do what they are rewarded for doing” (Andrews). The organization has its greatest impact in the standards it establishes for ethical and unethical conduct in its formal reward systems. Informal norms also have a strong influence on individuals’ behaviour, as do the actions of the leaders of the organization.
Perhaps the government needs to review the whole approach to ethical behaviour by its employees. Firstly, how much due diligence is done in appointing senior officers (as highlighted by Professor Mak) becomes a critical factor in assuring ethical leadership. Secondly, governments, agencies and senior public officials need to introduce various mechanisms, structures and approaches to encourage or enforce good conduct. To be effective, these need to be both proactive and reactive, and comprehensively address culture and behaviour, guidance and enforcement and means and ends (process and outcomes).
Some of these mechanisms may have been implemented but not followed through consistently enough:
- Standard Setting – e.g. agency codes of conduct, ethics training, etc.;
- Expectation Setting – e.g., establishing and maintaining an organizational culture that articulates the norms and values of the organization and the standards of behaviour expected of staff;
- Prevention Strategies – e.g., removal of opportunities through fraud prevention measures, disclosure of interests registers, gifts and benefits registers etc.;
- Enforcement Mechanisms – e.g., whistleblowing legislation; and
- Deterrence Mechanisms – e.g., watchdog bodies comprising independent members
Finally, strategic leaders (including ministers) must understand that their actions, more than words alone, will determine the operating values in the organization.