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Public service ethics: developing the field
Article Type: Guest editorial From: International Journal of Public Sector Management, Volume 23, Issue 7
About the Guest Editor
Alan LawtonProfessor of Public Sector Management and the Head of Centre for Organisational Ethics in the Business School at the University of Hull. He has published widely on public service ethics and current research includes organisational life cycles of regulatory agencies, local integrity systems and ethical leadership. He has worked with public service organisations in developing ethical cultures and ethical audit. He has also developed codes of conduct for the governments of Ethiopia and Lithuania.
From allegations of fraudulent election practices in Afghanistan to public outrage over MPs, expenses claims in the UK, issues of ethics and the standards of conduct in public life are never far from the headlines of the media. Such issues seem to be universal in their embrace, immune to differences in geographical location, political regime or history. Despite the concerns of international bodies such as the OECD, World Bank or the United Nations, it is not obvious that examples of fraud or corruption are any less evident than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Neither is it obvious that the creation of anti-corruption agencies or the passing of anti-corruption laws or the introduction of codes of conduct have had the desired impact in reducing incidences of unethical behaviour. What is clear is that there has been increasing interest in such matters amongst the international academic community involving scholars drawn from the disciplines of public administration, management, sociology, political science, economics, law, psychology and history. Several “state of the art” articles have attempted to capture this growing interest (Lawton and Doig, 2006). The research field of public service ethics is now maturing from a concern with “mapping the terrain” to developing tools for international comparisons, to quantifying the impact of ethical frameworks overtime and to drawing upon similar research into business ethics, public service motivation, public values and leadership. The field is rich with possibilities. At the same time, the traditional concerns of the social sciences with ontology and epistemology cannot be neglected. What are the appropriate methods to investigate this or that research question? What is the dominant view of human nature that underpins research? What is the level of analysis – the individual, the organization or the country? Are there enduring truths or is, for example, the nature of ethics contingent upon a range of religious, cultural or historical factors?
Whether or not there are enduring truths, it is clear that different countries do face similar problems and seek similar solutions to those problems. The impact of organizational factors on the behaviour of individuals is one such issue. Thus, the extent to which organizational values, practices and goals might come into conflict with individual values is an important focus for research. For scholars in the field both rigour and relevance are necessary. Rigour in terms of the relationship between our research questions, methods of data collection, data analysis and discussions of the findings. As scholars move beyond conceptual clarification, important though that is, theory development needs to continue. In some areas, theory is more advanced than others. For example, public service motivation scholars have relied upon an understanding of motivation and assumptions about human behaviour (Perry, 1996; Perry and Hondeghem, 2008). At the same time, we need to draw upon the full range of methodologies that are available to social science scholars including hypothesis testing by using statistical techniques, inductive theory building through case study analysis and explorations of meaning through discourse analysis.
In terms of relevance, scholars will need to address and bring their expertise to bear upon, what is happening in the practical world of public administration? A number of concerns spring to mind.
First, as public services are delivered, increasingly, through a range of different types of organization including public, private and third sector organisations, what will be the impact upon values, principles and ideals of public interest, accountability, equity or integrity?
Second, how have the wave of public sector reforms undertaken by different governments, sometimes under the mantle of new public management (NPM), affected the values that are said to underpin the public services?
Third, what can, and should, be the role of public service organizations in terms of the wider environment including sustainability? and what should be the policy priorities in a time of reduced public expenditure?
Fourth, given the disenchantment, and lack of trust, that many citizens express for their political leaders, how can governments demonstrate that public funds are being used in the public interest and not for private gain?
Fifth, are there new forms of citizen engagement that can be drawn upon to ensure accountability and transparency?
At the same time, there are long-standing concerns with the corrosive consequences of corruption on state building and on the quality of life for many citizens around the world. Many of these issues are being addressed through academic and practitioner for a. For example, one contribution has been made by the annual gathering of the Study Group Ethics and Integrity of Governance as part of the EGPA conference.
Contributions to this special edition
The articles for this special edition were chosen because they represent recent work in the field, adopting different methodologies, dealing with timely issues and offering useful insights into the current state of research. The paper by Emile Kolthoff, Rodney Erakovich and Karin Lasthuizen adopts a comparative approach and identifies leadership, culture and climate as key factors in an ethical framework. Their study examines the relationships between ethical leadership, ethical climate and integrity violations, drawing upon previous research and developing their own instrument of measurement. One interesting finding is the importance of laws and rules; most commentators argue that for ethical regulation to be successful, it needs a combination of a compliance approach, drawing upon rules and regulations, and an integrity approach, focusing upon the virtues of individual public officials (Maesschalck, 2005). Their contribution lays in the comparative approach – tentative at this stage but pointing the way for future research. Clearly, in any comparative work in this field, ethical and cultural relativism are of concern. Howsoever ethics is defined, and whichever act is seen as an integrity violation, leadership and culture will be key variables in determining ethical norms and values. Comparative research comes with a number of health warnings but researchers are beginning to move beyond descriptive analyses and towards theories of comparative ethics.
In a related development, Terry Lamboo provides longitudinal data so that we can begin to observe changes overtime. We need more of this kind of research, not least so that we can begin to track the impact of measures to combat unethical behaviour. One of the interesting findings of Lamboo’s research is to challenge the accepted wisdom that a police culture is entrenched and that the police all support each other and close ranks against external scrutiny. Lamboo finds that almost 20 per cent of accusations are made by one police officer against a fellow police officer. This raises some interesting questions about the appropriate location of regulation and control, and the role of regulatory agencies. This is a particularly topical issue across both public and private sector industries as the responsibility for fiscal and economic crisis gets passed around like a “hot potato”!
A second finding relates to the number of accusations of private time misconduct. This is a fascinating area as the boundary between public and private life becomes more and more blurred. A number of high-profile cases in the UK point to the difficulty of drawing a line between actions that are carried out in private and those enacted in public. It is right that we expect those who have sought public office to be more closely scrutinised than the average citizen. It is not clear, however, as has been recently suggested, that, say a teacher is in breach of professional conduct if found smoking a banned substance in private and in their own time. This is just one of the many grey areas that are found in public service ethics.
Lamboo also points to the difficulty of compiling accurate data in this area – the aptly named “dark numbers”, and the transparency of information is also visited by Patrizio Monfardini. Monfardini adopts a case study approach in his study of accountability in Italian and Swedish local government. His interest is in the different ways, and in the different policy areas, that citizens can hold their local authorities to account. The nature of citizen engagement with the state is examined, a crucial issue at a time of disenchantment with electoral politics and low turnouts in local elections. Monfardini highlights the danger of a non-elected elite, with the available time, resources and motivation, having greater involvement and possible influence over public policy, than most. Mechanisms for participation can be put into place but what about the will to engage? This is a key consideration for all discussions of participatory democracy. Monfardini also raises issue concerning the quality of the available information and access to it. As the reader will know, navigating a way around a local authority web site is often tortuous.
Citizen engagement is a key theme for Ari Salminen and Rinna Ikola-Norrbacka. Their large-scale survey (n=2,020) examines the relationship between trust, governance and ethical issues. The content of their survey is a welcome development of the more familiar poll that only asks for responses to a variation of “do you trust politicians?” For those of us who have always believed that Finland is “squeaky clean”, it is interesting to note its slippage in the Transparency International league table. What is clear from the research is the continuing existence of nepotism and patronage and how relations between government and business are perceived. What is also clear is citizen scepticism of politicians keeping their promises; and yet, as we know generally, there is still trust in the democratic system. Despite the best efforts of our politicians to undermine our trust, we still have faith in the system as a whole. At the same time, as the good governance findings of Salminen and Ikola-Norrbacka indicate, whilst we might trust public administration to act, generally, in the interests of citizens, it may not be that effective in so doing.
A theme introduced by Monfardini, but not developed to any extent, is the impact of public service reform. This is explicitly discussed by Werner Webb, who is interested in the effect of NPM on the underlying values of public service organizations in South Africa. Adopting a single case study approach, Webb is particularly concerned with the adverse consequences of public sector reform not least because the implementation issues are too often neglected. He makes the point that enacting anti-corruption legislation, and other forms of ethical rules and regulations, will not work without the capacity, and the managerial skills, to deliver. He is surely right to point out that formulating ethical policy and creating anti-corruption agencies is all well and good but without attending to implementation then such measures will not succeed: a point that strategy scholars have long made. Webb argues for a change in culture of individual departments and the importance of persuading staff at all levels that a concern with ethics is important. Clearly, leadership is crucial here, echoing the research findings of Kolthoff et al.
As research into public service ethics continues to develop the research instruments found in these articles can help guide further research and, hopefully, be used by other scholars, to further comparative research. As the community of scholars interested in empirical research into public service ethics grows, then such instruments can only help us in our endeavours.
Alan LawtonGuest Editor
Lawton, A. and Doig, R.A. (2006), “Researching ethics for public service organizations: the view from Europe”, Public Integrity, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 11–33
Maesschalck, J. (2005), “Approaches to ethics management in the public sector: a proposed extension of the compliance-integrity continuum”, Public Integrity, Vol. 7 No. 1, pp. 21–41
Perry, J.L. (1996), “Measuring public service motivation: an assessment of construct reliability and validity”, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 5–22
Perry, J.L. and Hondeghem, A. (Eds) (2008), Motivation in Public Management: The Call of Public Services, Oxford University Press, Oxford