Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Acting on Values: An Ethical Dead End for Public Servants

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Acting on Values: An Ethical Dead End for Public Servants

Article excerpt

We all want public servants to be ethical (i.e., to do right rather than wrong when faced with hard choices on the job). But how are we to ensure that public servants individually and in groups act ethically?

Traditionally, democratic governments have focused on the development of rule sets (in the form of legislation, regulations, codes of conduct, policy directives, etc.) designed to provide specific guidance to public servants faced with procedural ethical dilemmas (e.g., decisions concerning conflict of interest, confidentiality, and political neutrality) and substantive ethical dilemmas (e.g., decisions affecting the security, safety, and health of citizens). Public servants were expected to adhere to these rule statements and seek direction from superiors if the instructions were not explicit enough. Over the last decade, however, the rules approach to good behaviour in the federal public service has been challenged by the values approach, which argues that fostering core values and building an ethical culture is key for establishing a public service that acts ethically. The central tenet of the values approach, explored in this article, is that a framework of core values can be used directly by public servants to solve ethical dilemmas or to justify more specific rules of behaviour. Other governments in Canada and elsewhere have integrated values and value-based statements of principles into their respective ethics regimes, but few have embraced the values approach with more enthusiasm than the senior bureaucratic cadre in Ottawa.

While the values approach is a superficially attractive and increasingly popular approach, I argue that the claim for the importance of values as a foundation for building good ethical behaviour among public servants cannot be sustained. The values approach is conceptually flawed on a number of levels. Its advocates seem confused about what a value is and how to identify core values. They also seem tolerant of the existence of a large number of core values that are not clearly defined. This inevitably creates a situation in which there is substantial, irresolvable value conflict. Finally, the values approach, at least as structured in Ottawa, subdivides values into groups, making a puzzling distinction between ethical and non-ethical values. After examining these flaws, I explore the need to pay more attention to consequentialist approaches for enhancing ethical behaviour that resonate with the ways in which public servants intuitively approach ethical judgements. The article does not deal in any detail with arguments in favour of enhancing control regimes as an antidote to bad behaviour. (1)

A brief history of the values approach to ethical public service in Canada

Values such as responsibility, accountability and political neutrality have been the currency of debate about Canadian public administration since the discipline was defined. (2) But, generally, such discussions were prefaces to the proposal, construction or evaluation of institutional or procedural vehicles for ensuring the health of the value in question. For example, the predictable fixation with the value of accountability among the commissioners and staff of the Royal Commission on Financial Management and Accountability, in the late 1970s, led not to a call to build a stronger accountability culture in the federal government but to recommendations for changing structures and processes to allow the "electricity" of accountability to flow unimpeded. (3) Similarly, the merit value spawned the merit system. (4) Values were the obvious focus of the report of the federal deputy ministers' Committee on Governing Values, in 1987. The Institute of Public Administration of Canada put forward a values-driven "Statement of Principles Regarding the Conduct of Public Employees," also in 1987. The institute also co-published, in 1990 (with the Institute for Research in Public Policy), The Responsible Public Servant, a volume (of which I am co-author) examining the contemporary meaning of the values and principles contained in the statement. …

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