Questions of Ethics in Public Sector Management: The Case Study of Hong Kong

By Luk, Sabrina Ching Yuen | Public Personnel Management, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Questions of Ethics in Public Sector Management: The Case Study of Hong Kong


Luk, Sabrina Ching Yuen, Public Personnel Management


Introduction

Ethics has become more important in public administration in recent years. The problems of corruption, abuse of power, and fraud keep on arising within the government, leading to a decrease in public confidence in the government. In order to get back the support from citizens, many governments worldwide include ethics in their reform agenda. The Hong Kong government is no exception. The quality of the Hong Kong civil service is very good, and the civil servants have been internationally recognized as among the least corrupt and the least bureaucratic. (1) However, the government has faced ethical challenges in recent years. In order to maintain the integrity and professionalism of civil service, the government has established the principle of 'serving the community and being accountable' (2) when it reforms the civil service. It also tries to improve ethics management. The essay will examine ethics in public sector management, with a case study of Hong Kong as an illustration. The essay will be divided into the following sections: (1) ethics in government and its importance, (2) the rise of ethics in public administration, (3) general ethical practices in public sector, (4) ethical practices in the Hong Kong, (5) weaknesses of ethical practices and its challenges in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government, and (6) conclusion.

Ethics in Government and Its Importance

Ethics in government is associated with rules and standards, morals, right and wrong, and value of honesty and integrity. (3) It can be considered as a form of self-accountability, or an "inner check" on public administrators' conduct. (4)

Ethics is important in government. It is because public administrators are regarded as the guardians of contemporary administrative state. (5) They make decisions on behalf of citizens and which are related to public interest. As a result, they are required to have higher moral standards than employees in private sector.

The Rise of Ethics in Public Administration

However, tracing back the history of public administration, it shows that the moral aspects of the public administrators' job were ignored. Classical understandings of bureaucratic structure and organization theory have provided little in the way of an ethical basis for administrative activity. (6) In traditional management, Weber's bureaucracy was about ethics of neutrality. It was an alienating organization which took person as machine and treated people impersonally. Economy, efficiency and effectiveness were emphasized. As to scientific management, it stressed technical efficiency as the vehicle for successful management that was not concern with the humanistic and ethical components of organization behavior. (7) Both traditional management and scientific management believed in politics-administration dichotomy. It was not until the repeated occurrence of unethical conduct within the government did ethics start being subject to attention.

When the government has grown rapidly since the mid-1930s, it has been plagued by the problems of unethical acts such as corruption, drug abuse, and sex scandals. Public confidence in government began to decrease and the government began to lose its credibility in the early 1960s. The 1970s, with the occurrence of Watergate affair and repeated government misconduct, was the "ethics decade." (8) The New Public Management did not believe in politics-administration dichotomy. People realized that there was something fundamentally wrong when government was seen as the biggest threat to the country's future and when a society did not trust its major institutions. (9) Fundamental questions of "Who guards the guardians?" and "How to guard the guardians?" were asked by society. As ethics, trust, and government power are assumed to be linked, (10) therefore, ethical practices in the government must be emphasized and improved in order to get back the trust and support from citizens. …

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