Public sector ethics

Public sector agencies carry a distinct responsibility to act as a steward and to represent the interests of the society as a whole; what is often referred to as acting in the public interest.

For public officials to act in the public interest, they need a set of guiding ethics. These may not be the same as an individual's personal values, or the ethics of another profession.

Public sector ethics are concerned with the fundamental premises of public administration and the conduct of public officials.[1] The concept of ethics itself has been described as the fourth “E” that could be added to the three traditional “Es”, which are the basis of public sector administration; namely, economy, effectiveness and efficiency.[2] A central concept to understanding public sector ethics and serving the public interest is the concept of public duty.[3] Public officials have a duty to serve the public interest.

The laws, policies, codes, directives, and other written regulations that apply to the public sector will never cover every situation that a public official faces; nor is it practical for these documents to do so. Individuals also have different personal values, and without an explicit set of organisational ethics to guide them, they may reach different conclusions about the right action to take in a particular situation.

For these two reasons, organisations should develop and communicate an explicit set of ethical principles to encourage and guide consistent decision-making. Statements of ethics can be stand-alone documents or incorporated into an agency's code of conduct, as discussed below.

Public sector ethics relevant to corruption prevention focus on the following essential concepts:

  • impartiality – best demonstrated by the principle of merit-based decision-making and objectivity (a key principle of the Westminster system is an apolitical and professional public service)
  • public duty – demonstrated by public officials serving the public interest rather than having their decisions influenced and subverted by private interests
  • public accountability – demonstrated through transparency, honesty, accurate recordkeeping, and financial stewardship.

The publication, Behaving Ethically: a guide for NSW government sector employees (2014), by the NSW Public Service Commissioner, is designed to help public sector employees understand their obligation to act ethically and in the public interest. It provides practical guidance for day-to-day dealings with colleagues, clients, customers, stakeholders and the government of the day.

Behaving Ethically supports the ethical framework for the NSW government sector, which requires all government sector employees to conduct themselves in a way that demonstrates the core values of integrity, trust, service and accountability.[4] The core values are guided by 18 principles that include acting professionally with honesty, consistency and impartiality, and placing the public interest over personal interest. Many agencies endorse additional values as well, such as respect, excellence and customer service.

Ethical frameworks can be integrated into the agency's work by referring to them in performance agreements and in corporate reviews, for example, by making “consistency with the ethical framework” a criterion in periodic reviews. If they are not applied genuinely, corporate ethics will be worthless and encourage cynicism among staff. 

[1] G Clark, E Johnson and W Caldow,  Accountability and Corruption: Public Sector Ethics, Allen & Unwin St Leonards, 1997. Occasional Papers No 14, OECD Public Management Service, 1996, p 7.

[2] C Boardman and V Klum, NSW ICAC, “The first four steps. Building organisational integrity,” Sydney, 2001, p 7 in P Larmour and N Wolanin, (Eds), Corruption and anti-corruption, ANU E Press Canberra, 2013.

[3] Part 2 of the Government Sector Employment Act 2013 establishes the ethical framework.