Ethical dilemma of the public service | Daily News

Ethical dilemma of the public service

 Corruption, fraud, illegal conduct and other types of unethical activity have characterised our public sector during the last regime. There is little doubt that different types of unethical behaviour have contributed significantly to increased cynicism and scepticism by the larger public. This trend is evident in the current growing public concern over the unethical conduct of political leaders and senior public officials. It has also resulted in a resurgence of interest in ethics in our public sector.

Let me begin this brief paper by providing a backdrop to understanding the emergence of public sector ethics as an important focus in public policy, and thereafter discuss how we could resolve the crisis about the lack of public trust in public officials and public organisations.

First let us ask ourselves, as common citizens what do we expect from our public service and how would we define the specific characteristics of public service

We expect from a public servant to achieve three fundamental objectives: (1) manage public resources effectively and their usage properly accounted for, (2) will not use the public resources for partisan political purposes or for personal advantage, (3) maintain ethically high standard of behaviour right throughout.

Given these public expectations, how should we define the specific characteristics of an ethical public service” (1) first, there should be clear, ethical standards of behaviour and professionalism that public servants understand and must comply with, (2) second, there should be a high level of confidence among stakeholders - Government, Parliament, and the public - that these standards are being complied with, and (3) third, the level of confidence is reinforced by internal and external systems of accountability that can evaluate and report on ethical standards and also can detect and deal effectively with lapses.

At present, these values have been enshrined and elucidated in various public administrative and financial regulations governing the conduct of public servants, covering a whole gamut of subjects. If so, what then went wrong in the public sector There is growing recognition that, despite significant increases in resourcing, public service delivery is still failing in Sri Lanka.

Political and governance factors may offer at least some part of the explanation. A stronger evidence base is needed to address these factors, with greater cross country analysis that identifies some of the most common political economy constraints and incentive problems, and draws out lessons for how they can be overcome.


We are often told that decades ago, our public sector was a place of prestige and honour accepted as one of the best in Asia. What we witness today is a public sector with lethargy, corruption, extravagance and irregularities and all at the expense of common citizens.

Unfortunately, even in the last one-and-half years, a very few measures have been taken to curtail or reduce this. The excuse we hear often is that the higher-ups are corrupt and therefore nothing could be done. In this circumstance, before making major changes, the first step is the need to change the attitude of the public servants giving them strict work ethics which must be followed from the top-down.

The key word is “change” and that means not only the mind-set and attitude of public servants but also work norms, systems. There is no magic potion to create that much needed change. All that is required is the willingness and the acceptance that something is amiss and that it should be addressed with an appropriate action plan. We may think of flatter internal structures, delegation of operational authority, simplified processes, better communication channels, ability for the public to address their grievances etc.


There are factors unique to the Public Service that require officials to make decisions about ethical matters on a regular basis. The requirement for political neutrality is a particular example of the importance of perception. While senior public servants must give unstinting support to their Ministers they must at the same time provide thoroughly impartial advice to the Government.

The duty to provide free and frank advice raises some ethical dilemmas. Officials need to balance short and long-term considerations and the wider public interest, and aim for the broadest possible view of any given situation. The bottom line is that Ministers make and bear responsibility for policy decisions, while officials bear responsibility for the advice they provide to them.


This complex operational environment in which public servants now work is providing fertile ground for ethical dilemmas to surface. It is against these backdrop that we need to find solutions to create a suitable model that minimises the forces, and processes confronting the public servant.


Ethics in the public sector can be created if all the various external bodies and forces which monitor and bring into the public gaze the operation of the public sector are strengthened and protected.

There are the formal bodies such as the parliament, especially its committee system, offices and the opposition political parties. An independent judicial system is also vital and the new administrative law system.

External to the public sector is the civil society and a web of interests and NGOs, who can employ their own experts to scrutinise public behaviour and policy. There is a sceptical probing mass media, social media, the Internet, the web and the blogs.

All these keep public opinion informed and help to bring pressure upon politicians, government and public servants. In any society there is a sense of what is right and wrong in the public sphere. There are principles which the citizen expects to be adhered to.

The scrutiny of independent bodies with knowledge of the policy area and the ability to mobilise and inform public opinions is important to retain citizen trust in the ethics of the public sector.

There is internal audit and an external Auditor General. Performance targets, the management of the department and enforcement of rules and codes of conduct are all under the departmental head. These procedures and processes can be important devices for maintaining ethics.

The openness and transparency of processes can inspire trust in citizens. This is especially if full information is provided, and participation encouraged which is not just a public relations exercise. Open impartial public inquiries with hearings and citizen and stakeholders submissions engender trust.

Whistle blower legislation is also often considered an important means of ensuring transparency. You’re a whistle-blower if you’re a public official and you report certain types of wrongdoing.

This will usually be something you’ve seen at work - though not always.

The wrongdoing you disclose must be in the public interest. This means it must affect others, eg the general public. As a whistle-blower you’re protected by law - you wouldn’t be treated unfairly or lose your job because you ‘blow the whistle’.


Some argue simply that the best way to ensure ethics among public servants is to recruit ethical people into the public service. Certainly there is some truth to that. Can we teach it as they join the public service Then the question arises as to how much we should put ethics into their study curriculum.

That is, how much difference will it make Can we really "create" ethical people In the end, isn't ethics like so many other things--something that they bring with them upon entry to the programs

Perhaps. But given how much the effectiveness of government is compromised when even one public servant violates the public's trust, it does seem to be worth the effort to attempt to sensitize both current and potential public servants to the differences between ethical and unethical behavior. 


There is 1 Comment

Add new comment