7 Rules of Ethical Behaviour and Morality for Public Servants
Though often used interchangeably, (and of course erroneously), ethics and morality are two interdependent but distinct concepts at conceptual as well as practical levels. Morality is the name of one’s personal norms and values about good and bad; ethics are the norms and values of an organization, normally formalised in the shape of codes. Up to a certain level, ethics and morality are the same. However, what to do if the moral values of a public servant conflict with organizational ethics? And what are the standards of ethical behaviour?
This essay explains the meanings of these two terms and provides guidelines for the public servants on how to perform their duties as per the highest ethical standards expected of them
Ethics and morality are two interdependent but distinct concepts at conceptual as well as practical levels. Originally, Ethics is from the Greek word “ethos” meaning “character, while Morality is from the Latin word “mos” meaning “custom”. However, in modern usage, they are used to convey different meanings.
• Morality is the name of one’s personal norms and values about good and bad, his beliefs about fundamentals that determine his own behaviour, and the one he expects from others. The product of one’slife experience, knowledge, and training, moral values an individual can differ from another person even in one social setup.
• Ethics, on the other hand, are the norms and values of an organization, normally formalised in the shape of codes. It is the conduct and behaviour expected from the members of a group or organization. It can differ from personal moral values but not substantially from universal morality in the case of ethical organizations. Ethics can also be considered a social system or a framework for acceptable behaviour
Need for Ethics & Morality?
Ethics and morality are the basic foundations of any individual, organization, or civilization for survival and growth. The highest value which distinguishes humans from animals, ethical behaviour is a basic denominator, not the highest pedestal.
One of the distinguishing features between humans and other creatures is character and moral values. We have a complete package of Character and values. No other creature has character and values. In fact, character and values are the things that make us humans. e.g. forgiveness, sacrifice, anger, compromises, love, hate, relationships, etc., etc.
It is also a legal requirement. Soon after entering the service, all of you must have signed an affidavit promising to remain honest throughout your career. Any breach of that affidavit is a cognisable offence
It is also a social obligation. You took an oath under a constitution which is a social contract between the state and its citizens for running the state and society per certain well-defined rules. Being one of the custodians of that sacred document, you must set a very high threshold of ethical standards befitting a servant of the state as well as a public servant. Society has a right to expect the highest moral standards from its paid servants.
It is constitutional duty besides being a social obligation described above. All the legal/regulatory framework governing the terms and conditions of your civil service career is based on constitutional provisions, prescribing ethical conduct and moral behaviour for the public servants. They not only provide basic foundations for the conduct of the statecraft in the most organised and efficient way but also lay down the rules of the games and the boundaries for the civil servants.
Be true to salt provided by the state; even the word “salary” has its etymological roots in the word “salt.” Naturally, if you cannot stand for something, you will fall for anything. There is a very beautiful saying in Greek “character is destiny”. It aptly describes this fundamental truth
Ethics and Morality: Essential Ingredients
“Our government is now so huge and affects our lives so directly that we cannot be content with merely a moderately decent level of behaviour on the part of our public officials. For even a small percentage of misbehaviour on the part of these officials can do a vast amount of harm”.
Senator Paul Douglas- 1952
What are the essential ingredients of an ethical public servant? To me the following are the minimum requirements;
A. Giving the best of you
B. Conflict of Interest and roles
C. Confidentiality of state secrets
D. Application of the merit principle
E. Transparent public dealing
F. Personal morality vs. organizational ethics
G. Financial prudence and integrity
H. Ends do not justify means
A. Giving the Best of You
Public service is much more than just service delivery; the job description you have in your drawer is the bare minimum. It is the perceptions among the citizens about your conduct and behaviour that create institutional legitimacy for the state-so essential for its survival and growth. These very perceptions about your standards of service delivery result in trust or otherwise in governmental institutions, politics, and political leaders. That is why states all over the world set a very high standard of integrity and built it into the normal charter of duties of a public servant in the form of an elaborate code of conduct for the public service to ensure its optimum performance.
It is not only when a public servant takes money for clearing a file that he does not live up to her commitments; if she is not doing to the best of her ability and is not putting in the requisite effort, she is also not being honest with her commitments, her profession and with herself. Working per the job description is your duty, and working beyond is your ethical responsibility. Remember it is honourable to work; salary is not its compensation. Public service is a trust; not putting in your best efforts is a breach of trust.
Annual Performance/Confidential Reports of a civil servant should, in principle, give a fair idea of whether he is meeting the standards of service delivery and ethical behaviour expected from him. If not, he/she should be properly counselled and if necessary expected to follow a remedial coaching programme. In the worst-case scenario, where his under-performance seems incorrigible even after efforts to remedy the situation have been exhausted, a dismissal or downgrading procedure can be launched under Efficiency and Discipline Rules.
B. Conflict of Interest and Roles
One of the biggest moral dilemmas a civil servant faces is choosing the course of action dealing with any case where his own, or friends or family’s interest is involved. No, he should not. We are rightly expected always to act objectively and impartially in the best interest of the state and work for the public welfare. This, in turn, means operating within a framework of rules that include largely common-sense standards of conduct, expected from a sensible civil servant. His sense of public responsibility, which is fundamental to carrying out his duties correctly, will prevent him from accepting favours or gifts from third parties for any act of service delivery even if that party wants to give him a gift without any obligation in the instant case.
Similarly, he must not have an interest in any business or organisations which can benefit in any way from the post he is holding or if this has the potential to compromise his independence. It also applies to your spouse and the children, even to your near and dear ones. We must declare it officially and truthfully the nature of business these relatives are carrying out and their business activities are not related to your post; if these are related, then an undertaking that you will in no case handle any case relating to their business or try to influence your colleagues dealing with their case. I do not have to remind you that you must recuse yourself from dealing with a case in which you must decide on a matter in which you have a personal interest.
These ethical standards are expected even after your retirement; when you leave the service, you are still subject to certain codes of conduct. You cannot accept any assignment which would be incompatible with the interests of the state. If we plan to engage in a new occupational activity within two years of leaving the service, we must inform the government which could refuse to allow you to accept any activity or grant permission subject to several conditions if your proposed post-retirement assignment is related to the work carried out during your active service in the recent past. This permission, even conditional one, is strictly prohibited for the senior officials to engage in lobbying or advocacy of their former institution on matters for which they were responsible during the last three/five years in the service
C. Balance between Transparency vs Confidentiality
Transparent public dealing is the new mantra of public management whereby you are bound by access to information laws to divulge the information to the public or members of civil society organisation or the press. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly difficult for civil servants to maintain the confidentiality of state secrets. However, you must be very careful in dealing with such requests. Come what may, you are bound by the law to keep state secrets to yourself; the Access to Information Act applies to non-classified information. While adhering to the policy of openness and transparency as the cornerstone of our relations with the public, we should never lose sight of our responsibility as keepers of state secrets which if disclosed could damage the national interest. Under the rules, you can withhold any very sensitive information. Use your discretion very carefully but do not hide any unnecessary information under the cloak of sensitiveness.
On the other hand, do not settle your scores with the state or society, or your boss by giving access to any information which is very sensitive. We have the right to freedom of expression, with due respect to the rules specifically framed for this purpose. For example, you cannot publicly criticise the policies of the state; use files for this purpose, not the newspapers or social media. Even if you want to write about any issue of public interest, you are duty-bound to seek the permission of the competent authority.
Principles of loyalty and impartiality forbid us to divulge restricted information; we do not enjoy immunity from legal proceedings for this negligence. Of course, when it comes to proceedings before the court or any competent forum we can divulge such information after getting the approval of the competent authority regarding the information to be given to that forum and under which conditions.
Unfortunately, some of us are very careless and start discussing cases we are dealing with our friends and relatives. It is unethical; yes, loose talk about cases you deal with is unethical. Similarly, giving off-the-record information to the press is also unethical and immoral. Settle your score by writing dissenting notes on files, not through press leakage. Keep in mind the various provisions of the codes of conduct prescribed by the state in this respect. These are framed not to restrict your liberty of action but to govern the way we should deal with the public and ensure a high-quality public service.
D. Application of Merit Principle
Whether recruiting anyone, posting an employee to a better post, or appointing a person for any lucrative assignment, an ethical person strictly follows the merit principle-best person for the right job. Similarly, you should be very careful while making any decision about the career of an employee or awarding a contract not to deviate from the rules. Any discrimination based on gender, religion, or caste is not ethical behaviour. According to settled case law, non-discrimination has two aspects:
comparable situations must not be treated differently and different situations must not be treated in the same way, unless, in either case, such treatment is objectively justified.
Avoiding discrimination does not, therefore, mean treating everyone the same regardless of differences in their situation. On the contrary, the exercise of judgment is required to distinguish relevant differences from irrelevant ones. For example, in every country, there are affirmative action programmes specially approved by the government to uplift the marginalized sections of society. Exercising that discretion under the prescribed rules is not unethical
E. Organizational Ethics Are Supreme
Up to a certain level, ethics and morality are the same-honesty, integrity, transparency, fair play are the universal norms. However, there may be certain moral values that you prefer but if they conflict with the organizational ethics, then you must follow the latter set of values, not yours. It is ethical behaviour. You are bound by the rules of the game not by your own moral values how high they may be.
For example, lawyers, policemen, public servants, and doctors all must follow an ethical code laid down by their respective professions, regardless of their own feelings or preferences. In case of a conflict between their personal morality and organizational ethics, the latter will be the guiding principles not their own set of values. That is why lawyers defend criminals in court to the best of their abilities even though they may hate them for committing heinous crimes. Saving the life of a patient is the prime duty of a doctor; in certain countries, a doctor may euthanize a terminally ill patient at the patient’s request, as per ethical standards for health professionals in that country.
A vegetarian posted in a livestock department cannot pass an order banning the construction of slaughterhouses. A pacifist jugged posted in a country where the death penalty is mandatory for a proven case of homicide cannot give less punishment on the plea that he is personally against capital punishment. Killing someone is one of the cardinal sins from a moral point of view but a woman who has opted for soldiery as a profession must kill the enemy in a battle because her organisation mandates it. If during the fight, she refuses to shoot at the advancing enemy, she will be jeopardising the lives of her colleagues because the enemy soldiers will not be caring about the moral value of the sanctity of life; they will be performing their ethical duty to take the life of the enemy i. e. YOU!
F. Ends Don’t Justify Means
Here is my favourite dilemma. It springs out of two forces acting upon the civil servants, namely pressure and obligations respectively. We are under pressure from the state and society to deliver; at the same time, we are under obligation to follow the rules and regulations. Normally they go together; a conscientious and competent civil servant knows how to produce results without digressing from the laid down procedure. However, I will not discount the possibility that on certain occasions a civil servant may start brooding over the possibility of bypassing the rules either out of pressure or yielding to the temptation to deliver. What to do now?
No, do not fall for this self-created trap. Ends do not justify means. Only a self-alienated person mixes both. Do not rationalize your procedural lapses by successful execution. Machiavelli, who came up with this saying, meant something more like “The ends excuse the means”. You can give him the benefit of the circumstances he was living in 500 years ago. This was the mantra of the private sector in the 1950s till now. But under pressure from the increasingly assertive civil society even they are abandoning it.
Project Management Institute is the apex body that provides professional guidance for the execution of projects in the public and private sectors. Their book PMBOK 5 has a special chapter on this issue. Its main points are enumerated in an annexure to this chapter. It will give you an insight into the way the private sector is supposed to deliver. Why we should go for that which they are abandoning?
However, before ending this section let me clarify two points-context and affirmative action.
Context means every situation should be evaluated as a unique set of circumstances and act per the situation. Not every precedent should be followed nor discarded; accept or reject them per the merits of the case but strictly under the rules. Critical thinking and logical analysis are needed here.
Second-affirmative action. In every country, the state makes special policies for the mainstreaming of its marginalized sections of society. Known as Affirmative Action Policies, these give wide discretion to the civil servants to disregard merit. Here again, the intention is the name of the game. Do go for a positive interpretation of rules in case of ambiguity, not every time.
G. Financial Prudence and Integrity
Interestingly, financial impropriety and corruption are the first words that come to the mind of a common person when asked to define the unethical behaviour of a civil servant. And rightly so. However, as we have noted throughout this chapter, ethical behaviour and morality are more than accepting monetary or non-monetary favours from the clients for performing their duty. It even includes making good, in whole or in part, any damage suffered by the government because of serious misconduct while performing our duties. After considering all the mitigating circumstances, if it is found that you have breached a legal obligation, caused financial damage, and are guilty of deliberate misconduct or gross negligence, the relevant provision of the Misconduct Rules can be invoked to make good the loss.
One critical issue we often ignore; we are duty-bound to report possible fraud or corruption you may have noticed which is detrimental to the interest of the state to the competent authority without delay or feeling any remorse. Failing to do so is a serious breach of the code of ethical behaviour as the failure to comply with professional obligations, by any of our colleagues to the appropriate authority. Once reported your responsibility is over; do not make it a point of prestige to ensure that the delinquent colleague is taken to task immediately. Let the competent authority take its time and make a decision per the rules.
Remember, unethical behaviour begins with minor transgressions such as taking home office stationery, misusing official telephones, exaggerating TA/DA statements, or declaring a journey undertaken for personal reasons as an official tour, that swell over time. These patterns of unethical behaviour snowball over time to the point that over a period, the thick red line between the personal and the professional gradually erodes from the moral calculus of the government servants.
Just like the Ponzi schemes which initially fudge a few numbers to cover up relatively small losses and end up in the form of larger financial fraud. Brendon’s famous Broken Window metaphor;-If you do not catch the first person who breaks the window of a house, soon all the houses in the vicinity will have broken windows. Those who rationalize minor indiscretions would likely do the same for worse behaviour on a gradual scale. Tragically, those engaging in unethical acts are also less likely to do anything about deteriorating behaviour in others.
Ethical behaviour is contagious. Your example will be quoted and followed. Leave better examples to be followed. I believe that even the legal framework and the service rules in vogue in most countries give ample leverage to an honest civil servant to stand on his/her feet. If a civil servant who is true to his/her salt decides not to yield to temptation or succumb to pressure, no authority on earth can harm him.
He can only be transferred or made what they call Officer on Special Duty (OSD) another name for paid holidays, enjoying all the perks and privileges he is entitled to when posted against a regular post. And lately with the greater assertiveness of the judiciary and the openness of the media and the civil society, honest civil servants find more protection, and this trend will gain momentum in the days to come. I will end this piece with the following four principles which the Project Management Institute expects from its members.
- It is not responsible to permit proven unethical behaviour to go unreported or hide an inability to deliver.
- It is not respectful to stand by while someone’s reputation is smeared or use your power/influence to your own advantage.
- It is not fair to favour your friends over those better suited or ignore conflicts of interest.
- It is not honest to agree to a schedule we don’t believe is achievable or report speculation as fact.
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