Bureaucracies suggest some answers and to propose a possible framework by which we may seek answers. The questions, and the framework for answering them, follow the same lines as the model that has already been developed in relation to business ethics. The problems and the solutions do not so much lie in the ethics of public sector officials as in the combination of law, ethics and institutional design.
For public servants, ethics is just the latest trend from the “private” sector. Large corporations have given us the concepts of strategic planning, economic rationalism, and overpaid chief executives. Government bodies have dutifully followed and are now borrowing remorse and ethics.
For others, public sector ethics may appear as a way of warding off legal regulation or ministerial control. Just as business was deregulated in the early 80s, there were strong arguments for greater autonomy for senior bureaucrats. When things came unstuck there were many in business that seem to promote ethics merely to ward off re-regulation. Similarly, there could be some who push public sector ethics merely to ward off formal control of their activities.
For some, the call for ethical standards can be seen as an attempt to protect traditional bureaucratic practice, lifestyle or centers of power. Establishing and policing codes of ethics can be marketed as a method of effectively excluding undesirable practices and undesirable people but one must always be aware that bureaucrats may be undesirable to others for a variety of reasons and only some of those reasons are a matter of ethics.
It is important to remember that anyone can cry “ethics” and that such call may be made for tactical advantage rather than moral conviction.
As in other areas of applied ethics, it is common to argue that it is in the long term interests of bureaucrats to act ethically. While the fates of some of the sharpest and least ethical members of eighties, business and government are uppermost in our minds this argument will remain popular. However, we should not forget that anyone who said in the early that ethical practice is in the best interests of business and government would have been received at best with skepticism and at worst with derision.
Who knows how true it will seem in the late nineties or even in cabinet rooms and government offices when the next political crisis comes. Thus as I have argued before, the idea that ethical behavior is in the long term self interest of individual administrators may be a very short term one. Arguments of self interest should be supplementary rather than dominant because ethics cannot survive as a contingent outcome of an entirely selfish utilitarian calculus.
Before considering the content of public sector ethics and the ways in which people may seek to provide that content there is a more basic question as to the form public sector ethics should take. There are essentially four models involving two types of code and two types of morality.
Written codes can be divided into disciplinary codes that set the lowest common denominator of conduct and inspirational codes which set out the highest standards to which all should strive.
The distinction between publicly owned and privately owned institutions is exaggerated. Similar phenomena occurred in the no government sector where entrepreneurs did as they liked within their organization. The cause was similar in that those who provided the funds thought for one reason or another that they should not exercise control whether through confidence in the individual (many ordinary shareholders), a fear of losing out to competitors (banks), or a belief that they should be merely passive investors (life offices). When those left in charge are dishonest, incompetent, ridiculously over-optimistic or a combination of all three, the road was a short one to disaster in government and no government institutions.
This is not to say that such rules do not have a place in a well ordered public sector ethics regime. It is just that enforceable codes of conduct should be treated as a form of legal regulation would have imposed an obligation on all public servants to “seek to achieve the highest standards practicable”. In the committee recommended bill the clause remained but the entire legislative code had been transformed from a disciplinary to an inspirational code.
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