Principles of managing ethics

A study by the OECD showed that all member countries give great importance to eight core values – Impartiality, Legality, Integrity, Transparency, Efficiency, Equality, Responsibility, and Justice. High standards of conduct in the public service have become a critical issue for governments across the world.

Globalisation and the further development of international economic relations demand high recognisable standards of conduct in the public service. Increased concern about the decline of confidence in government and corruption has prompted governments to review their approaches to ethical conduct.

In response to these challenges, the OECD has issued 12 principles for ‘Managing Ethics in Public Service’ to help countries review the institutions, systems and mechanisms they have for promoting public service ethics. These principles are as follows;


  • Clear ethical standards – Public servants need to know the basic principles and standards they are expected to apply to their work and where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lie. For example, clear and simplified code of conduct/ethics.
  • Ethical standard should be reflected in legal framework – Laws and regulations could state the fundamental values of public service and should provide the framework for guidance, investigation, disciplinary action, and prosecution.
  • Ethical guidance for public servants – Training facilitates in ethics awareness can develop essential skills for ethical analysis and moral reasoning.
  • Public servants need to know what their rights and obligations are in terms of exposing actual or suspected wrongdoing within the public service. These should include clear rules and procedures for officials to follow, and a formal chain of responsibility. Public servants also need to know what protection will be available to them in cases of exposing wrongdoing.
  • Political commitment to ethics should reinforce the ethical conduct of public servants. Political leaders are responsible for maintaining a high standard of propriety in the discharge of their official duties. Their commitment is demonstrated by example and by taking action that is only available at the political level, for instance by creating legislative and institutional arrangements that reinforce ethical behaviour and create sanctions against wrongdoing.
  • The decision-making process should be transparent and open to scrutiny. Public scrutiny should be facilitated by transparent and democratic processes, oversight by the legislature and access to public information.
  • Clear rules defining ethical standards should guide the behaviour of public servants in dealing with the private sector. This is particularly important regarding public procurement outsourcing or public employment conditions.
  • Managers should demonstrate and promote ethical conduct. An organisational environment where high standards of conduct are encouraged by providing appropriate incentives for ethical behaviour, such as adequate working conditions and effective performance assessment, has a direct impact on the daily practice of public service values and ethical standards.
  • Management policies and practices should demonstrate an organisation’s commitment to ethical standards. Government policy should not only delineate the minimal standards below which a government official’s actions will not be tolerated, but also clearly articulate a set of public service values that employees should aspire to.
  •  Public service conditions and management of human resource should promote ethical conduct.
  • Adequate accountability mechanism should be in place within the public service. Public servants should be accountable for their actions to their superiors and, more broadly, to the public.
  • Appropriate procedures and sanction should exist to deal with misconduct. Mechanisms for the detection and independent investigation of wrongdoings, such as corruption, are a necessary part of an ethics infrastructure.

In order to manage ethics in public services, simply drawing a code of conduct is not enough but there is need for a proper ethics infrastructure. OECD enumerates the following key elements for an effective ethics infrastructure:

  • Political commitment – Politicians should say ethics are important, set an example, and support good conduct with adequate resources
  • An effective legal framework – It refers to the laws and regulations which set standards of behaviour and enforce them
  • Efficient accountability mechanisms – It includes administrative procedures, audits, agency performance evaluations, consultation, and oversight mechanisms
  • Workable codes of conduct – It should include statement of values, roles, responsibilities, obligations, restrictions
  • Professional socialisation mechanisms such as education and training
  • Supportive public service conditions such as fair and equitable treatment, appropriate pay and security
  • An ethics co-ordinating body
  • An active civic society, including a probing media to act as watch dog over government activities.