Professionalism and Ethics in the Public Service: Issues and Practices in Selected Regions

Executive Summary

Scandals involving public officials have captured world attention these days. Precipitated by shady privatization deals, the diversion of aid, wide- spread public sector patronage, crony capitalism, and campaign financing abuses, people are debating outright corruption and unprofessional behaviour in government. Are public officials held to higher standards of performance and conduct than others? If so, why? With the advent of the modern state, government officials have been and are seen as stewards of public resources and guardians of a special trust that citizens have placed in them. In return for this confidence, they are expected to put public interest above self- interest.
The public service, made up of those employees of the state who are covered by national and sub- national civil service laws, plays an indispensable role in the sustainable development and good governance of a nation. It is an integral part of democracy because it serves as the neutral administrative structure which carries out the decisions of elected representatives of the people. It not only serves as the backbone of the state in implementing a strategy for economic growth of a nation but also runs the programmes that function as the safety net for the most vulnerable segments of a society. Given these crucial roles, a country expects its public service to demonstrate high standards of professionalism and ethics.

Professionalism in the public service is an over- arching value that determines how its activities will be carried out. It encompasses all other values that guide the public service such as loyalty, neutrality, transparency, diligence, punctuality, effectiveness, impartiality, and other values that may be specific to individual coun- tries. Ethics in the public service are broad norms that delineate how public servants should exercise judgment and discretion in carrying out their official duties. These values and norms are better reinforced if there exists a system of administra- tive policies, management practices, and oversight agents that provide incentives and penalties to encourage public servants to professionally carry out their duties and observe high standards of conduct.

However, public servants in developing and tran- sitional countries must meet the global challenges of a rapidly changing world and perform under local hardships. The world may no longer be threatened by the cold war but must cope, instead, with escalating ethnic conflicts, spreading demo- cratization and its growing pains, a shifting balance between the state/market/civil society forces, economic globalization, and increasing demands made by better informed citizens. These global changes warrant a re-examination of the role of the state and the public service in sus- tainable human development.

At the same time, many countries have large populations living under crushing poverty, where basic needs go unmet and vast numbers of people are unemployed or under-employed. Many coun- tries experience conflict, cannot guarantee basic human rights, and witness a general breakdown of law and order. Under these difficult local condi- tions, public servants in developing and transi- tional countries are asked to accomplish the impossible—settle conflicts, rebuild nations, set up infrastructures, and develop prosperous socie- ties—under extreme resource constraints. When basic needs cannot be met, talking about public service professionalism and ethics can seem a luxury.

Observing these problems and having seen their costs to the socio-economic development of its members states, the United Nations has tried to draw the international community’s attention to the very important link between public service performance and development. In view of its mandate to assist governments, at their request, to strengthen their governing and administrative capacities, the United Nations has been active in promoting professionalism and ethics in the public service. Specifically, its Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Public Economics and Public Administration organized a series of regional and national conferences on these topics. This present publication is an 2 Professionalism and Ethics in the Public Service overview of the issues discussed, practices reported, and conclusions drawn from three of these events.

At the regional level, in 1997, the Division co- organized a regional conference on Public Service in Transition: Enhancing Its Role, Professional- ism and Ethical Values and Standards. Ministers and high-ranking public officials from 21 coun- tries of Central and Eastern Europe gathered in Thessaloniki, Greece to discuss the role of the public service in the enormous political, econo- mic, and social transformations which the coun- tries in the region are experiencing. As they embark on reforms from a one-party to a pluralistic state and a centrally-planned to a market-oriented economy, the state is having to assume new and discard old roles, with resulting implications for the “public service in transition.” The Division also co-organized, in 1998, the Second Pan-African Conference of Ministers of Civil Service on the Civil Service in Africa: New Challenges, Professionalism, and Ethics. The conference in Rabat, Morocco drew ministers and other experts from 35 African countries. The participants discussed how to reposition their countries’ public services in the wake of a downturn in the global economy and structural adjustment policies. They discussed the crucial role of a “public service in adjustment” in the economic recovery of the region, through creating an enabling environment for generating wealth and ensuring its equitable distribution.

At the national level, the Division co-organized a colloquium in Brazil on Promoting Ethics in the Public Service, in 1997. In Brasilia, 300 senior federal and state public servants as well as representatives from the business community, the media, the academy, and professional associations discussed how to modernize the civil service in line with “managerialist” reforms, introduced in the Brazilian public administration. Given the central focus of this paradigm of the citizen as taxpayer, participants discussed the “public service and managerialism.” The resulting shift from a rules-based to an outcomes-oriented bureaucracy has implications for public service professionalism and ethics. Thus, the colloquium benefited from presentations and discussions that are relevant not only to Brazil but to other countries as well.

Although these conferences took place in different regions, the participants concurred on the central role of the state in the socio-economic development of their nations, the need to depoliti- cize their bureaucracies, and the importance of responding to citizens’ needs. They spoke out against corruption, calling for its containment through addressing root causes such as low salaries and salary compressions. They high- lighted the needs and challenges distinctive to their region or country but were also quick to see the benefits of international cooperation. Given the similar and yet different circumstances that face its membership, the United Nations will continue to bring together countries to discuss problems, share solutions, and promote cooperation. These actions will, hopefully, contribute to promoting professionalism and ethics in the public service.

United Nations
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Division for Public Economics
and Public Administration


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