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Corruption, Ethics and Accountability: A Normative Approach to Control

By Rod Erakovich, William Carroll, Chelsea Smith, Tunde Campbell and Leo Wright

Good governance requires good public servants. A focus on public administration and its efforts to combat corruption are more inclusive than simply public administration and the public servant. Analysis of ethics and ethical behavior must ensure core values and standards meet public expectations. Our focus is on corruption found in public administration, those that make the wheels of government work. We define corruption as the use of a position of trust of public servants for dishonest gain. It may be a transfer to better oneself or for one or more citizens. But when the gain is received without regard to due process and public interest, it raises serious ethical concerns on the capability of a democratic government to serve all citizens.

erakovich 2A common practice in contemporary, democratic market – oriented countries is to hold public servants to higher ethical standards than other professions. This double standard from the vantage point of political and legal philosophy seems entirely reasonable. Our task, however, is not to suggest the entire anti-corruption strategy. We examine the role of ethical accountability in keeping in check the corruption and opportunistic behavior of public servants.

To successfully engage corruption it would seem knowing the source and cause would be useful if not imperative. Every society has a level of corruption they will tolerate and perhaps even expect. The “Bad Apple Theory” explains the most commonly held source of corruption. This is probably the train of thought most used because it is simple to grasp and provides a clear target for retaliation for what is viewed as defiant behavior. As soon as the reward exceeds the penalty and probability of being caught, the problem will resurface unless accountability and transparency policies are implemented in all levels of an operation.

Although there is a broad agreement that accountability in government is necessary to fight corruption, there is no consensus on one definition or through what mechanisms, if any, it may be achieved. In a broad sense, accountability is defined as “answerability” through a system of values, actors, expectation, actions, means and relationships. In essence, accountability in the public sector is a paradox involving external standards that pressure the moral development and internal virtues that support good administrative judgment.

Anti-corruption efforts include establishment of laws, codes of conduct and other legally binding documents, organization of oversight mechanisms, percent of budgets audited, percentage of recruitment of new public servants by examinations and other merit criteria and the number of financial accounting systems operating under an integrated management concept. While critical, such structural approaches are not sufficient. A critical missing part is moral accountability.

In a 2004 Administration and Society article titled “The Accountability Paradox in the Age of Reinvention,” Philip Jos and Mark Tompkins argue that the model of administrative accountability offers a framework consisting of direction-based accountability, performance based accountability and procedure based accountability. These compliance based processes put controls over administrative behavior creating “low road” ethical choices, hindering autonomous ethical decision making, discouraging self-examination and eliminating honest moral talk. Accountability is measured in terms of outputs rather than compliance with regulation in which creativity is encouraged and formal processes are deemphasized.

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What is truly important is the fact that these accountability frameworks cannot replace individual judgment. Ethics cannot be reduced to rules and formulas followed in a mechanical way. Public administrators each must have their own stable set of core values and democratic ideals that are applied consistently but meet the ever-changing external standards of their environment. The administrator with these qualities has the integrity to take responsibility for his or her own judgment and choices, even in a turbulent politically charged atmosphere. To truly stem the corruption that exists, an accountability system is needed that focuses on ethical moral development rather than those that hinder ethical decision making.

While laws, rules and formal codes of ethics offer some standards of conduct and guidelines for ethical decision-making, an added approach is to link enforcement codes with a normative approach to establishing an ethical climate that supports societal values and democratic processes. Such strategies might include:

  1. Develop employee ethical accountability through moral development.
  2. Promote participative decision-making participation by employees and citizens thereby establishing cooperation and trust.
  3. Within the legal and regulatory constraints of the public bureaucracy, support innovation through risk taking.

Montgomery Van Wart, in his 1998 book Changing Public Sector Values, sees administrators carrying out their duties in a value-laden, value-driven environment and asserts that managerial, ethical, social and political values are not separate. Public servants make decisions on a set of values that blends all considerations simultaneously. The goal is not to focus on the penalty, although we agree consequences for corrupt behavior must be present, but to focus on the process of ethical analysis in a way that defies corruption as a gain. The efforts to create ethical behavior of public officials must focus on not only structural approaches through legal and formal remedies, but also a normative approach that focuses on the due process and public interest.

 

Rod Erakovich, PhD, is an adjunct professor of public administration at Upper Iowa University and can be reached at [email protected].

William Carroll is a student in the MPA program at Upper Iowa University. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Chelsea Smith is a student in the MPA program at Upper Iowa University. She can be reached at [email protected].

Tunde Campbell is a student in the MPA program at Upper Iowa University and can be reached at [email protected]

Leo Wright is a student in the MPA program at Upper Iowa University. He can be contacted at [email protected]. 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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