Cleaning up government
Has something happened to the concept of public officials serving the public’s good?
- In Argentina, the vice president has been caught up in allegations of using his influence to secure a friend’s control over a printing company that has multi-million dollar contracts with the government.
- In Germany, the president of the country, Christian Wulff, opted to resign ahead of an official probe into allegations that – while governor of the German state of Lower Saxony – he used his position to secure a low-interest mortgage and free perks like full-paid holidays.
- In the United Kingdom, the expanding probe of alleged corruption committed by the British newspaper The News of the World has come to include public officials in the country’s defence ministry and police force.
- In South Africa, a parliamentarian from the governing party was found guilty by the legislature’s ethics committee for failing to disclose her interests with a private leasing company that employed members of her family and renovated her own home.
According to people around the world, political parties and parliaments are among the top institutions that are the most prone to corruption. The results, compiled by Transparency International, show that 63 per cent of the more than 100,000 people surveyed consider political parties to be the most corrupt institution in their country. The national legislature follows a close second, as signaled by 57 per cent of those interviewed in 100 countries – from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
Yet these trends are not new.
Perceptions of corruption in political parties and parliaments have been consistent across time and countries, signaling a systemic mistrust on the part of citizens in the bodies that are supposed to represent them.
New findings from our recent study of 25 European countries show that these two institutions are also the weakest forces in promoting integrity. Parliaments have been blamed for not establishing and implementing anti-corruption safeguards, including codes of conduct. Of the 25 countries in the study, only eight have codes of conduct for parliamentarians.
Codes of conduct: Bringing ethics back into government
Whether for parliamentarians or public officials, codes of conduct help to build an atmosphere of ethics. For government officials, they offer a clear, concise frame of reference for an institution’s ethical principles in a single document. Member states of the European Union need to push to get these codes adopted and enforced. But these countries are not alone in lacking codes of conduct to help get the integrity of government back on track.
Within a government, codes of conduct strive to decrease corruption and increase accountability among public officials – whether elected or appointed. The aim of these codes, which may be voluntary norms or legally enforced, is to make sure that the public’s interest is protected. The recent passage of code of conduct for public officials in Delhi has been used as a recourse to rein in political campaigning by standing members. Similar codes have been used to look into potential conflict-of-interest violations by heads of state, from Canada to Israel.
When designed well, codes of conduct offer clear ethical standards and a reference point which citizens and governments can use to assess the behaviour of public officials. Codes of conduct typically are combined with sets of penalties and other punishments for public officials found to be in violation of them.
Government crackdown helps put China’s luxury market in decline
Tales of excessive gift giving among politicians in China seem to have reached a tipping point. The online community was reportedly set abuzz at the start of this year’s legislative session when top politicians were seen sporting expensive watches and high-end clothing that did not match their party-paid salaries. Such rumours only echoed more loudly against the unfolding corruption and murder scandal that allegedly involves former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and his family.
The government response has been to clamp down hard on all activities that smack of luxury, indulgence and corruption.
In July, the government outlawed all civil servants from using any state funds to purchase luxury goods. Increased checks-and-balances are expected to be put in place to monitor state monies used to buy vehicles, pay for receptions and travel internationally. In one province, a handbook has been circulated to all court employees about the importance of rejecting presents, favours and other gestures that could be called in later for a favourable verdict.
Some luxury market analysts see this and other moves by the government as one driver of a sharp fall in Chinese high-end sales, from gold watches to designer clothes. Nearly one-fifth of all consumers who bought luxury goods between June 2011 and June 2012 said that they were gifts for business contacts.
A guideline for good behaviour?
But what exactly is a code of conduct? Is it a set of rules? Or it is more like an ethical Ten Commandments for public officials?
According to one handbook on the topic, codes of conduct are generally value-based guides on how public officials should behave, and outline what they should – and should not – do on the job.
Codes are written documents and generally are divided into three key parts: a statement of principles, rules, and a regulatory framework.
- Statement of principle: The section sets out a benchmark for what is expected in terms of public officials’ conduct and ethical behaviour.
- Rules: Here, concrete issues and expectations for public officials are clearly presented. Topics typically include conflicts of interest, gifts and hospitality, abuse of authority and impartiality.
- Regulatory framework: This part outlines the institutional structures available to the state to promote ethical behaviour among its employees. It may also demand and establish an independent body to oversee the receipt, investigation and sanctioning of infractions of the code.
When it comes to sanctions, often these penalties are administrative rather than criminal. Punishments may include dismissal from office, written warnings, written or public reprimands, ineligibility to hold public office and specific measures providing for salary penalties and demotions.
Yet even the best designed codes of conduct can fall short when there is no political will to subscribe to and enforce them from the top. And often, it is those leaders at the top that are worst offenders.
For example, a recent case from Czech Republic suggests that a former mayor of Prague (and now a member of parliament) allegedly ran city hall with a local wheeling-and-dealing businessman, effectively putting a €2 billion budget under their joint control. And in neighbouring Slovakia, such misconduct allegedly has reached up to the former prime minister who oversaw the country’s privatisation deals – and the millions of euros in bribes that were reportedly paid to Slovak officials, political parties, national police and local companies to win the contacts.
This problem of corruption reaching to the top means that monitoring, such as through internal and external oversight mechanisms, can provide an important system of checks and balances over the activities of public officials.
In 2011 Transparency International Georgia monitored the conduct of members of parliament in the country. They noticed some disturbing instances of 'ghost voting', or members casting votes for absent colleagues – a practice proscribed by the rules of procedure of the national parliament. See for yourself in this footage obtained by our Georgian chapter. It's one example of the type of behaviour that codes of conduct can help to weed out of government.
Who do codes cover?
Codes of conduct usually apply to a country’s public servants. This group can be further split between:
- civil servants (employees of a government department or agency), and
- public officials (people elected or appointed in the legislative, judiciary and executive branches).
But who exactly qualifies as a public official?
The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), the key global agreement on corruption, defines a public official as:
- “any person holding a legislative, executive, administrative or judicial office whether appointed or elected, whether permanent or temporary, whether paid or unpaid, irrespective of that person’s seniority” and
- “any person who performs public function or provides a public service as defined by the domestic law of the State Party and as applied in the pertinent area of law of that State Party”.
While debating the semantics of the definitions can seem tedious, it is extremely important to understand who the codes of conduct apply to in a country. The application and enforcement of codes varies depending on one’s government position. This distinction is especially strong between appointed civil servants and elected public officials.
In some countries – such as Italy, for example – the code of conduct for public officials is not applicable to elected officials. These differences in applicability are often a result of the immunity from prosecution that elected officials are granted under a country’s constitution.
Giving teeth to codes of conduct
Such challenges for the implementation of codes of conduct doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be used. If anything, such codes provide a framework for judging the behaviour of public officials – and calling them out on actions that fall foul of it.
Identifying the soft spots early can help to prevent problems later. Analysing limitations in the codes can lead to reforms that close loopholes and ultimately strengthen the codes of conduct and, in turn, the behaviour of officials.
Codes of conduct provide an essential tool to help public officials walk the straight and narrow line of high integrity and ethics. And as has been seen in various countries, public officials are unfortunately still in need of this help.
Listen to two short podcasts, from our colleagues in Georgia and Estonia, about the importance of codes of conduct.
- See our related blog post, 'Codes of conduct: a tool to clean up government?', which is the first in a series of posts to explore the concept and practice of these codes.
- Transparency International Georgia paper: Georgia's Parliamentary Code of Ethics - A Need For Reformation
- Transparency International UK paper: TI-UK submission on parliamentary code of conduct
- Transparency International report, Money, Power, Politics: Corruption Risks in Europe, and accompanying feature article
- Blog post: 'Will EU politicians deliver on code of conduct promise?'
- Transparency International project, Comparative Indicator-based Monitoring of Anti-corruption Progress initiative (CIMAP) in Albania, Kosovo, FYR Macedonia and Turkey
- Transparency International press release, Robust Code of Conduct passed by European Parliament
- OECD paper, 'Implementing effective ethics standards in government and the civil service'
- European Parliament, Office for Promotion of Parliamentary Democracy paper, 'Parliamentary ethics: a question of trust'
- U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, 'Beyond the code of conduct: Building ethical competence in public officials' and other ethics-related content
- OSCE conference report, 'Codes and standards of ethics for parliamentarians'
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