Some thoughts about ethics in public administration

 By Thomas Scapin, Researcher at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon, France

In this brief blog post, I would like to share some thoughts[1] about ethics or integrity[2] in public administration. My presentation will fall into two parts. On the one hand, I’m going to put into historical perspective the idea that the policy agenda in the OECD zone has been recently shifting from anti-corruption to integrity. On the other hand, I will present a theoretical concept of administrative ethics which emphasizes the specific challenges related to this issue and the way to understand it in different contexts.

First of all, it is worth noting that both the international and research agendas already started to shift from anti-corruption to integrity in the mid 1990s. For example, the Public Management Committee (PUMA) of the OCDE began activities at the time on how to manage public officials’ ethics in order to promote integrity rather than only fighting corruption. For that purpose, the international organization has designed an “ethics infrastructure” consisting of “tools and processes to regulate against undesirable behavior and to provide incentives to good conduct” (OECD 1996, 8). At the same time, several member countries started to review their ethics policy in the public service to emphasize a more positive and preventive approach. Good examples can be found in the UK with the Nolan Committee (see Committee on Standards in Public Life, 1995), and in Canada with the Task Force on Public Service Values and Ethics (see Canadian Center for Management Development & Tait, 2000). There was simultaneously a renewed interest for this topic in the academic sphere as well. Scholars in public administration have especially debated about “the impact of NPM reforms on public servants’ ethics” (Maesschalck, 2004). More generally, there has been a rise in the study of public administration ethics and integrity in the United States and Europe since the late 1990s and early 2000s (see Menzel, 2005 and Lawton & Doig, 2006).

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Three causal narratives about regulation and corruption

By Claire A. Dunlop, Professor of Politics and Public Policy at University of Exeter, UK and Claudio M. Radaelli, Professor of Public Policy at University College London, UK

What is the exact causal relationship between corruption in the public sector and regulation? Hundreds of studies have scrutinized this relationship. We end up with not just one, but three causal narratives: that regulation causes corruption but under certain conditions; that it is the quality of regulation to hinder corruption; and that anti-corruption regulation can aggravate the problem of corruption.

The first narrative is by far the most popular. It is corroborated by studies carried out mostly by economists – regulation of private market activities may not only be inefficient, but push companies and small business entities to pay bribes to avoid either compliance or administrative costs – or simply to get a permit that depends on the discretion of public authorities. Does it follow that de-regulation is always a good idea to curb corruption? It depends: for a start, we have an efficiency loss if we scrap regulation that generates net social benefits. Then in some cases even what apparently looks like the most benign form of de-regulation, such as de-regulating business starts-up, can facilitate corruption. This is the case when de-regulation facilitates the process of rent-extraction by ruling elites. It also depends on whether we are looking at small-scale corruption in rule-making or grand-scale regulation-induced corruption such as nationwide privatization plans or the attribution of licences to broadcast television.

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From moral-philosophical fiction to real political scenario’s: why a particularistic focus on integrity should replace universal views on (anti) corruption. 

By Dr Toon Kerkhoff, Assistant Professor of Public Administration at Leiden University, The Netherlands

The current failure of anti-corruption

Anti-corruption research and policy since the 1980s have mainly departed from a rather universalist approach, which holds that there is a set of values and norms about corruption or ‘good governance’ that is valid anywhere. Corruption has accordingly been defined quite narrowly as abuse (i.e. unlawful, illegitimate use) of public office for private or personal (mostly monetary) gain. Its root causes are, furthermore, economic (poverty but also incentives to maximize gain) and/or legal (not enough or badly enforced laws and regulations or weak formal government institutions).

The result of universalism and a narrow definition has been a global one-size-fits-all economic and legal approach to anti-corruption, most notably by international financial institutions such as the IMF or the Worldbank or political transnational organizations such as the EU and UN. In essence: the belief has for long been that what works in one context must also work in another and what works is having certain public institutions in place, such as democratic and free elections, political party competition, an ombudsman, or a free judiciary.

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Building Integrity through Nonviolence Practice

By Dr Roberto Baldoli, Fellow of the Center for European Governance, University of Exeter  and Claudio M. Radaelli, Professor of Public Policy, University College London

Fighting corruption through monetary incentives and sanctions has shown many limitations. Given certain conditions, this approach can even undermine social trust. The shift from anti-corruption to integrity is a key step to overcome these limitations and side-effects. Yet, the focus in the field of integrity is still on institutions or personal conduct. Can we imagine a different way to look at integrity, which creates resilient communities and builds strong institutions from the bottom-up? We make the case for nonviolence as practice.

The Oxford dictionary defines nonviolence as ‘the use of peaceful means, not force, to bring about political or social change’. This force for change is already playing an important but too often unrecognized role in fighting corruption. From the Philippines to India, from Afghanistan to Romania, nonviolent resistance unleashes people power against corrupted governments. Civil society manages to force corrupted governments to resign through stunning work of erosion of the social and political pillars that support corrupt power.

These achievements are important, but nonviolent practice offers more than this. The integrity debate is a perfect illustration of the causal effects of nonviolence. To see this, we begin by observing that nonviolence properly understood, and contrary to conventional wisdom, is not a protest, it is a constructive programme. When it responds to corruption, at the micro level it is embodied in practices that give power to individuals. The power to add to history, even if only with a single act of disobedience that says NO to what has happened until now, the power to offer a hunger strike as vehicle of a dialogue, the power to show how a given corrupt condition can change with a constructive programme. This builds up confidence, resiliency and vision of what is and ought to be. At the collective level, nonviolent practices build integrity bottom-up rather than through top-down implementation of principles, ethics and regulatory benchmarks.


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