Public service values

There are obvious constraints to attempts to prescribe values which public services should adopt, given the variety of historical, social and cultural forces at play in different parts of the world. However, in general, public administrations were established to provide politically neutral and loyal service to governments.

For the purposes of ensuring neutrality and loyalty, rules were formalised concerning such issues as impartiality, incorruptability, allegiance to the constitution, and obedience to the law. In order to provide an environment in which these rules could be adhered to, public servants were offered security of tenure, a meritocratic career path and post-service remuneration.

In 1996, the UN adopted an ‘International Code of Conduct for Public Officials’ in response to growing concern with corruption in government internationally, and represents an attempt to identify those values which are shared by public administrations through the lens of ethical principles.

Public servant are required to perform several complex tasks. While performing these tasks, public servants employ a range of values as a means to guide their behaviour and to assist them in steering a course through multiple requirements. The complexity of public service ensures that its value system is unique and specific to its work.

Public servants play a critical role in the implementation of public policy and should understand the importance of values to all aspects of their work. Poor clarity or uncertainty about values can not only lead to ethical and decision-making dilemmas, but also affects organisational coherence by diminishing team spirit, creating organisational confusion and weak external communication.

Competing interpretations over what values are in fact ‘core’ to the public service reflect an ongoing debate over the role of the public service in a democracy. For instance, civil servants being an agent of policy implementation need to uphold values such as political neutrality and loyalty, whereas viewing the service as holders of the ‘public interest’ implies greater emphasis on fairness, transparency and impartiality.

Identifying appropriate value sets and knowing when to promote or prioritise particular values over others is a challenge frequently faced by civil servants. For instance, prioritizing equity over efficiency in job allocation due to mandate of affirmative action.

As we know, promoting a sense of equity and fairness is the defining value of public service in Indian democracy. Nonetheless, values are prioritized and emphasized based on necessity and situational demands. For example, a Department dealing directly with the public might place particular emphasis on the values of equity and transparency. However, other Departments might prioritise efficiency and effectiveness as their core values.

Sherman reviewed the public sector codes and guidelines of various countries and common set of values that turned out, are as follows;

  • Honesty and integrity
  • Impartiality
  • Respect for the law
  • Respect for persons
  • Diligence
  • Economy and effectiveness
  • Responsiveness

(These values are already discussed in detail)

Similarly, in a cross-national study of ethics measures, the OECD identified impartiality, legality and integrity as the most frequently stated core public service values.

Ethos, conduct and principles

Ethos is a collective term and shares common origins with ethics. However, while ethics is concerned with guiding judgement, an organisation’s ethos is understood by looking at its character and the manner in which it performs its tasks.

Values and ethics are understood as a guide to an action whereas conduct refers performance of the actual activities themselves. Conduct is also about the behaviour of individuals in particular situations and the decisions they make and act upon. For instance, Code of code for civil servants.

Principles are frequently interchanged with values but former is the subset of later. While principles can also be values, not all values are principles. Principles represent fundamental beliefs which should not be transgressed, and statements of principles may contain many values. Cooper defines principles as ‘general laws or rules that provide a guide for action’. For instance, principles might include justice, liberty or equality.