The reputation and success of governance depends upon the conduct of public functionaries and what the public believe about their conduct. It is therefore of fundamental importance that public functionaries act justly and fairly to all, not only paying lip service to ethical conduct but also ensuring that these are manifestly and undoubtedly seen to be done. It is imperative that all public functionaries upon accepting government employment recognize that they have a special duty to be open, fair and impartial in their dealings with society. Personal self-interest should be subordinate to the public good in all circumstances, especially if circumstances arise where the possibility of a conflict of interest may become an ethical dilemma.
Viewing ethics in this light indicates that people are faced with choices requiring them to make decisions enabling them to lead an ethical life within the context of their relationships with others. This suggests that people can be placed in ethical dilemmas. An ethical dilemma arises from a situation that necessitates a choice between competing sets of principles. Thus an ethical dilemma can be described as a circumstance that requires a choice between competing sets of principles in a given, usually undesirable or perplexing, situation. Conflicts of interest are possibly the most obvious example that could place public sector leaders in an ethical dilemma. Other types of ethical dilemmas in which public servants may find themselves include conflict between: the values of public administration; justifications for the institutions; aspects of the code of conduct; personal values and supervisor or governmental directive; professional ethics and supervisor or governmental directive; personal values and professional ethics versus governmental directive; blurred or competing accountabilities; and the dimensions of ethical conduct.
Ethical Dilemmas Faced by Public Servants
Some of the most common ethical dilemmas with which public servants are confronted, revolve around aspects such as:
- administrative discretion
- administrative secrecy
- information leaks
- public accountability
- policy dilemma
Public officials are not merely executors of public policy. They make decisions pertaining to the lives of people, for example, about taxes, survival and the dismissal of people. In doing so they exercise discretion. The question is then how decisions are to be made to avoid ethical dilemmas.
It is true that within the rules and regulations laid down by legislation and within the prescribed procedures, there is ample opportunity for the public official to use his discretion. When faced with alternatives the choice of the public official poses an ethical problem: the choice may be acceptable to only a small section of society. The problem is that the selection of one path of action from among several alternatives is often made on the basis of personal preference, political or other affiliations, or even personal aggrandizement, thereby disregarding known facts and thus the possibility of rational decision making. It could well be that all the prescribed rules, regulations and procedures are adhered to but that the discretionary choice may be viewed as unethical or even corrupt.
Corruption The majority of officials uphold the high standards required by public office and are devoted to promoting the general welfare. The ethical standards of public officials are, however, directly related to society as a whole. If the public accepts that in order to secure an expeditious response from a public official some pecuniary or other incentive is necessary, and the official accepts the incentive, then the standards of ethical conduct of officials and the public are in fact in harmony from the point of view of the public.
An area which lends itself to the creation of situations and actions which could prove to become major ethical dilemmas is the secret conduct of public business. This is especially so because secrecy can provide an opportunity to cover up unethical conduct. Secrecy is an ally of corruption and corruption is always practiced in secrecy. It is generally accepted that in a democracy the people have a right to know what the government intends to do and it would be in the interest of the public for the administration of public affairs to be conducted openly.
The practice of nepotism (the appointment of relations and/ or friends to public positions, thereby ignoring the merit principle), may lead to the downgrading of the quality of the public service. This disrupts the esprit de corps and trust and resulting in corrupt administration, owing to the ability of a select few to impair control measures on account of their personal relationship with the policy-maker, and by reason of their not being easily dismissed or replaced by others. In other words, those who are appointed with the view that they will conform to the standards and views of their appointing authority could prove to be problematic. The preferential treatment of one individual over another, without taking into account the relative merit of the respective individuals, represents nothing but victimization of an individual or individuals.
Official information is often of such a sensitive nature (for example, pending tax increases, rezoning land, retrenchment of staff) that disclosure of the information can lead to chaos, corrupt practices or, for some individuals, improper monetary gains. Leaking official information at a date prior to the public announcement thereof is a violation of procedural prescriptions and can be an ethical dilemma.
Since public officials are the implementers of public policies, they ought to be accountable for their official actions to their superiors, the courts and the public. It is nevertheless, possible for them to hide behind prescribed procedures, the cloak of professionalism and even political office-bearers.
Policy makers are often confronted by conflicting responsibilities. They have specific loyalties to their superiors, but also to society. They have freedom to act on behalf and in the interest of others, but they must also answer to others – their superiors and society – for their actions. The official’s obligation to respect the political process may conflict with his view on how the objects of policy making are treated. In other words, the dilemma of the public official is the clash between his view of the public interest and the requirements of law.
Dilemma of the public servant
The potential areas for conflict are not necessary ethical dilemmas in themselves. It is what the public servant does when he is confronted by activities pertaining to these phenomena that could prove to be the ethical dilemma:
- Would he keep silent when he finds that administrative discretion is abused, or that corruption or nepotism are practiced?
- Or should he blow the whistle? 3. Should he actively engage in pressure group activities because he sympathizes with their views?
- Should he actively participate in party politics?
- Or should he endeavor only to promote the public good and uphold the high standards of public office?
Ethical Dilemma Case
Sanjay is a senior public servant who has worked in two State public service departments over a twenty-year period. Prior to this he was employed as a chartered accountant. In the course of performing his duties, involving primarily monetary and budgeting issues, sanjay becomes aware that public revenue is being used inappropriately. While he is not directly responsible for this aspect of the budget, he raised his concerns about the channeling of funds from one part of the budget to another to the Head of Division. Sanjay learns that not only is Deepak aware of this practice, but also that he condones it. Not long after, sanjay is summoned to talk to Deepak and to the Director-General about the issue. In preparation for this meeting Deepak prepares a short paper that identifies his understanding of the key issues and presents this to Deepak and the DirectorGeneral. Due to the politically sensitive nature of the issue, sanjay is told that the matter is not within his jurisdiction and therefore he should ‘keep his nose out of it’. This advice is based on the fact that the incumbent government will not tolerate questions about how it puts its budget together but that it also faces electoral defeat if the matter were to be made ‘public’. sanjay and his two supervisors are acutely aware of the tensions between the department, the minister and the government. This unease manifests itself around the advice the department provides the minister with, and the advice that the minister and the government want to hear in particular: After much soul searching, sanjay decides to obey his supervisors by leaving the matter alone.