Ethics in Government: Concepts, Issues & Debates

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Jan 1, 2007

In modern times, ethics in government have become not only something of great public interest, but also an important area of study in the academic fields of politics and government. This article introduces the basic concepts, issues, and debates surrounding government ethics. It also discusses the meaning and importance of government ethics, different types of unethical conduct in the context of government, and issues and debates surrounding the establishment of ethical codes in government.

An Introduction to Government Ethics

What are government ethics and why are they valuable?

Unethical Conduct By Public Officials

What sorts of conduct are commonly considered unethical?

Regulating Ethical Conduct: Issues & Debates

What to keep in mind when examining ethical codes in government

Links to Further Information

Find out more about government ethics and scandals


Introduction to Government Ethics

What is ethics and what does it have to do with government?

What is Ethics?

We often hear the term government ethics used in the media, and by politicians and political commentators – yet it isn’t always clear what exactly is meant by this term. A useful way to approach the discussion is to begin by examining the word “ethics.” Generally speaking, ethics refers to the study of right and wrong behaviours. In our daily lives we are constantly faced with important questions about what to do. Should I keep my promise or should I not? Should I report a lost wallet, or simply keep the money inside? Should I give to the panhandler or keep my change? Ethics, as a field of study, attempts to find principles and rules for answering such questions.

Professional Codes of Conduct

An important field of study in ethics is professional codes of conduct. Many professions, such as the fields of medicine, law and education, have developed sets of rules or guidelines that govern members' conduct. These codes of conduct set out very clear guidelines of what are considered right and wrong behaviours within the particular profession. The doctor’s Hippocratic Oath is one of the most famous examples of a professional code of conduct. Often recited by medical students upon graduation, this Oath usually contains a promise to help sick persons to the best of one’s ability and to avoid harm whenever possible.

Ethics & Government

Government ethics refers to a particular professional code of conduct for those who work in and for government. Government ethics, therefore, involves rules and guidelines about right and wrong behaviours for a host of different groups, including elected leaders (such as the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers), elected representatives (such as Members of Parliament), political staff, and public servants.

These groups are faced with a variety of difficult and very unique ethical questions. Should a public official be able to hire his/her own company to work for the government? Should elected representatives be allowed to accept expensive gifts from lobby groups? When can a public official divulge personal information about citizens? How should public servants treat their co-workers and subordinates? Government ethics identifies what are correct behaviours in each of these situations and establishes rules of conduct for public officials to follow.

Government Ethics & Democratic Participation

So why should we care about government ethics? One reason often cited is the importance of government ethics to democratic participation. As a democratic nation, Canada’s political system only functions properly if its citizens are actively engaged in the democratic process. If, however, Canadians came to believe that politicians and governments were generally unethical or corrupt, they might develop a strong sense of apathy towards their democracy. This, in turn, may result in people withdrawing from democratic participation altogether. You may have heard comments such as: "Why bother voting? They are all crooks anyway."

Government ethics can play an important role in ensuring this does not happen. By setting out clear rules that public officials must abide by, and by holding persons accountable when those rules are broken, Canadians can have confidence in their elected representatives and political system. It goes without saying that there will always be scandals that violate ethics. However, Canadians can take some comfort in knowing that when unethical behaviour does occur, appropriate actions are taken to punish the person(s) responsible.

Government Ethics & Effective Public Administration

Another common argument for government ethics focuses on effective public administration. Collectively, Canadian governments at all levels are responsible for billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money and billions more in public assets and property. Moreover, governments are responsible for providing very important services to citizens, such as social services, public utilities, police services, and national security. Citizens, therefore, have a strong interest in ensuring this public money and property, as well as services upon which they depend, are managed as efficiently and effectively as possible. This requires taking precautions against activities that cause widespread government waste and inefficiency.

Government ethics, properly enforced, can be a valuable means for protecting against government waste and ensuring effective public administration. Such a code can prohibit many of the activities that lead to waste, including theft by public officials and use of government property for private gain. It can also address issues such as bribery and conflicts of interest; activities that can lead public officials to sacrifice the public interest in the administration of programs and services for private gain and benefit.


Unethical Conduct By Public Officials

What sorts of conduct are commonly considered unethical?

With respect to government and public officials, several different sorts of conduct are often held to be unethical:

Theft & Fraud by Public Officials

Governments in Canada manage billions of dollars in public money annually and own billions more in physical property and assets. This includes everything from land and buildings, to vehicles and aircraft, to office equipment and furniture. One of the more serious ethical issues in government is theft of public property by public officials. Such theft can range from the trivial, such as taking home office supplies, to the more grave, such as stealing millions of dollars from the public purse.

Fraud is one of the most common, and costly, forms of theft by public officials. Often referred to as theft by deception or trickery, fraud occurs when an individual deliberately deceives others in order to unjustly gain money, property, or services. There are many different ways in which public officials attempt to defraud government and taxpayers. They may, for example, submit false expense reports for costs they did not incur, or provide inflated work invoices for services they did not render. In the most extreme situations, public officials may participate in elaborate schemes of deception to divert large amounts of public funds from government programs and services into their own pockets.

Improper Use of Government Property

Theft and fraud, however, are not the only ethical concerns regarding government property. Another important issue is the use of public property by public officials for private benefit. This would include, for example, using one’s office telephone for personal long-distance calls, or using government vehicles for personal transportation. Such abuses of government property are not exactly theft. The public official is not actually stealing the office telephone or the government vehicle. Instead, the issue concerns the purpose for which the government property is being used. There is an expectation that equipment and transportation will be used only for activities associated with the performance of public duties, and not for purely personal reasons or for private benefit.

Bribery & Influence Peddling

Another important issue in government ethics centres on public officials and acts of bribery. Bribery occurs when a person of authority is offered, and accepts, some personal benefit in exchange for performing some action. A public official may, for example, be offered money, property, or free services. In exchange, s/he agrees to take some action that benefits the giver of the bribe, such as voting a certain way on a piece of legislation, or turning a blind eye to some illegal activity.

Influence peddling is a particular form of bribery in which a public official actively sells his/her ability to influence government decision-making. Regular forms of bribery involve a private individual or group approaching a public official and attempting to buy interests. In the case of influence peddling, however, it is the official him/herself approaching others in an attempt to sell access to government, services or otherwise.

Bribery and influence peddling can be very detrimental to public perceptions of government, as well as effective public administration. In a democracy, we tend to view our bureaucrats and elected officials as being responsible to, and servants of, the general public. Accordingly, there is an expectation that these public officials will act impartially and objectively in the performance of their official duties, with the goal of achieving the public's best interests. When a public official acts on a bribe, however, s/he is no longer acting in the public’s best interest, but rather in the interests of the particular person or group paying the bribe.

Conflict of Interest & Self-dealing

Another common issue in government ethics is conflict of interest. This occurs when a public official’s private interests are such that they may influence the performance of his or her public duties. The concern here is often the same as with bribery and influence peddling. Public servants and elected officials are expected to exercise impartiality and objectivity when performing their official duties, and should act in the public’s best interests. When there is conflict of interest, however, there is a concern that the public official may favour some interest other than the general public.

Conflict of interest arises in many different situations. Self-dealing is one of the most obvious ones. This occurs when an individual’s activities in his/her official capacity involve dealing with him/herself in a private capacity, often for personal benefit. A classic example is a public official using his/her office to hire their own private company to work for the government. The concern is that the public official may choose his/her own company instead of other, better options available, simply because they desire the profits from the government contract. Moreover, s/he may be very lax in ensuring the public gets full value for its money. Concerns over conflict of interest can also arise when public officials deal with persons with whom they have close relations, such as family members, close friends, and business partners. The concern here is that the public official will place the interests of this particular individual above the greater interests of the public.

Many countries have implemented conflict of interest rules. Public officials may be required, for example, to divest their business interests prior to taking office. This may involve selling the interest, or placing it temporarily under the control of someone else (for example, placing it in a trust). Officials may also be required to take certain precautions when dealing with situations that potentially involve conflict of interest. They may, for example, be required to excuse themselves from certain government decisions where they have a private interest at stake, or, at the minimum, disclose the nature of their interest publicly.

Divulging Confidential Information

Public servants and elected officials are often privy to all sorts of sensitive information, such as military/security secrets or personal information about citizens (criminal records, tax information, medical histories). An important area of government ethics is concerned with the conduct of public officials in regard to this sensitive information. Generally speaking, there is often an expectation that public officials will keep this information confidential and will not inapprpriately divulge what they know.

Confidentiality can be important for different reasons, depending on the situation. In the case of military secrets, confidentiality is often viewed as essential to the physical security of the nation and its people. Divulging such secrets (commonly referred to as “treason”) is considered so unethical that it is punishable by long prison terms or even execution in some countries. In the case of personal information, confidentiality is important to personal privacy and dignity. In many countries individuals have the right to keep personal information private; government officials are obliged to respect that privacy.

Improper Conduct Post-Employment

To this point, much of the discussion has focused on unethical activities by public officials while in office. Another developing area in the study of government ethics, however, focuses on the conduct of public officials as they make the transition from the public service to private employment. There are many potential issues here, ranging from conflict of interest, to improper use of confidential information, to bribery and influence peddling.

Prior to leaving office, for example, a public servant or elected official may grant favours to certain individuals or groups as a means of securing future employment. Again, the basic concern here is the impartiality of the public official in the performance of his/her public duties. The desire to secure future employment may lead the public official into a conflict of interest situation, or, in more serious cases, into situations of bribery or influence peddling.

Another concern is the activities of government officials once an individual is in the private sector. Former officials may take advantage of information s/he obtained in performing his/her public service duties, information that is unavailable to the general public. Such individuals may have confidential information about a future government policy; this information could offer the former public servant a distinct advantage in the marketplace with respect to investing, for example.

Former officials may also use their connections to gain preferential treatment or privileged access to government after leaving office. This is particularly worrisome if the former official joins a private lobby group and is able to use his/her connections to gain unfair advantages for others. Many countries, in fact, enforce a “cooling down” period in which former government officials are required to wait a period of time after leaving office before becoming a private lobbyist. This is not unlike the practice followed by individuals who have worked, in private enterprise, with a particular firm, and then left that firm to ‘set up shop,’ either with another company or independently. Often there is a moratorium on working with particular clients, or with a given industry.

Immoral Conduct by Public Officials

One of the more controversial areas of government ethics is the personal moral conduct of public officials. This would cover issues such as sexual harassment, discrimination, drug abuse, and extra-marital affairs. The underlying concern here is whether the public servant or elected official is a person of good moral character and worthy to hold public office.

Many countries prohibit some forms of immoral conduct, especially those directly linked to the performance of one’s public duties. For example, public officials are often expected to treat co-workers and subordinates with a certain level of respect, and are prohibited from engaging in certain activities such as sexual harassment or discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, or sexuality. Public officials are also often expected to be honest in relations with superiors and the public in general. Lying by a public servant can often be grounds for dismissal. 

Regulation of other forms of immoral conduct, in particular those that do not have a direct link to one’s official duties, is a much more controversial topic. In many countries, public officials are expected to adhere to high moral codes in all aspects of their lives. Even in Western democracies, voters often hold elected politicians to high moral standards. Some may argue, for example, that persons whom engage in extra-marital affairs in their private lives or who have had past drug abuse problems have poor moral character, and cannot be trusted as public officials. On the other hand, it could be argued that judgement of public officials should be limited to their professional qualifications and work, not their private lives. This view would hold that public officials have a right to a certain level of privacy in their personal lives, and should be allowed to withhold some aspects of life from the public record.


Regulating Ethical Conduct: Issues & Debates

What to keep in mind when examining ethical codes in government

When examining government codes of ethics it is important to consider key issues, such as which ethical rules are being included or excluded, specifically how those rules are being set out, and what procedures and mechanisms are in place to ensure adequate accountability and transparency. The following section provides an introduction to these important issues and debates.

Establishing a Code of Ethics

In establishing a Code of Ethics to regulate the ethical conduct of public officials, the particular rules and guidelines to be recognized are of prime importance. Most agree that a government Code of Ethics should include prohibitions against severe and clear cases of unethical conduct, such as theft, fraud, treason, bribery, self-dealing, and so forth. However, there is often debate on what else should be included.

Some argue, for example, that ethical guidelines for public officials should go much further, prohibiting certain activities even when no actual unethical behaviour has occurred. One example of this would be a complete prohibition on public officials receiving gifts from private individuals, no matter the value of the gift, and regardless of whether or not it involves an actual case of bribery, influence peddling, or conflict of interest. One might support this broader ethical code of conduct on the grounds that permitting any sort of gift receiving, no matter how trivial or benign, encourages more serious unethical conduct. One might also argue that such ethical rules are important in maintaining a positive image of government amongst citizens. The idea here is that a perception by the public that government is corrupt or unethical is just as harmful to society as actual instances of corruption.

Another controversial issue is whether or not government codes of ethics should include rules of good moral character for public servants and elected officials. This would include, for example, being an upstanding citizen in one’s community and not engaging in morally frowned upon activities, such as drug use, frequenting establishments of disrepute, or engaging in certain sexual conduct. For some, government codes of ethics should only require public officials to be “good employees”; in this view, such codes should only regulate the work-related activities of said officials. For others, a Code of Ethics should demand public servants and elected officials to be “good persons,” and, as an extension, should outline rules governing how these officials conduct themselves both at and outside the workplace.

Setting Out a Code of Conduct

A second issue focuses on how a Code of Ethics for public officials should be set out. There are several different options available: 

  • Criminal Law: One means of setting out ethical rules for public officials is through criminal law (for example, through the Criminal Code of Canada). Under such an approach a violation of an ethical rule is considered a criminal offence, one that would be punishable by severe sanctions and penalties, such as imprisonment.
  • Formal Ethics Legislation: Ethical rules for public officials may also be enshrined in formal pieces of legislation passed by the government. Ethics legislation of this sort will often be very encompassing, outlining different ethical offences, mechanisms for investigating and prosecuting unethical conduct, and various penalties for violating an ethical rule.
  • Informal Ethics Guidelines: Finally, ethical codes of conducts may be drawn up as informal guidelines. These rules are not formal laws (unlike the previous approaches outlined), but are simply internal policy developed by the government to guide public officials in their conduct.

In many cases, a government will use several of these means in setting out ethical rules for public officials. Governments will often look to criminalize more serious ethical offences, such as theft, fraud, bribery or treason, and will prohibit them under criminal law. Other less severe conduct, such as conflict of interest or improper use of government property, might be regulated through formal ethics legislation or an informal ethics guideline. A government may also use a variety of different pieces of legislation and guidelines for different groups of public officials. Elected politicians, for example, may have different ethics legislation governing their conduct than public servants and bureaucrats.

Which means to use will often depend on the objectives of the government of the day. If there is a desire to have a large amount of control over ethics investigations, in particular, investigations of its own people, then a particular government may prefer to have more informal ethics guidelines. As these guidelines are not formal laws, but simply internal policy, they have the advantage of being easily changed or disregarded whenever the government feels it is necessary to do so. If, however, a government desires to have a regularized and more permanent set of ethical rules, it may prefer to rely more on criminal legislation or a formal code of ethics set out in detail in legislation that is passed by the elected officials of a given legislature.

Accountability & Ethics Commissions

Today, another common issue in government ethics is accountability. What does this term mean? It is useful here to think about a Code of Ethics as a rulebook that outlines what is expected of public officials. It, in essence, sets out the rules of the game. Accountability, on the other hand, refers to what happens when the rules of the game are broken. It involves “holding the person/s accountable” when they engage in unethical behaviour.

Accountability, then, includes a number of important topics. For example, how are allegations of unethical conduct made and investigated, and who has the responsibility to undertake such investigations? Should a separate ethics agency be created, or should the police handle it? Who should prosecute and adjudicate ethics cases? Should it be an ethics commissioner, the government, or the courts? Finally, what should the punishment(s) be for violating ethical rules? Should there be fines, jail time, or other forms of disciplinary action?

One of the most important issues regarding accountability is the structure of the agency that is responsible for overseeing government ethics. Many governments, including the Canadian federal government, have established an ethics office or commission, usually headed by an ethics commissioner. What should be the mandate of such a commission? Some argue that an ethics commission should have the responsibility for investigating and reviewing the actions of public officials and, as such, should be granted extensive investigative and prosecutorial powers. This would include, for example, the power to demand testimony and documents from public officials, as well as to charge whomever is believed to have violated an ethical rule. Also important to such a mandate is ensuring that an ethics commission has real independence from government to investigate and prosecute ethical offences, particularly when it is investigating government officials and employees.

Others, however, counter that a more advisory role for an ethics commission is all that is required. This view holds that the only function of such a commission would be to give advice to the government on how to handle ethical issues, and to counsel individual public officials when they find themselves in an ethical dilemma. This view also asserts that traditional institutions, such as public inquiries, the police, and the courts, should be relied upon to investigate and prosecute unethical conduct. Accordingly, there would be no need to grant strong investigative or prosecutorial powers to an ethics commission, or even to ensure that it has much independence from government.

Transparency, Disclosure & Public Awareness

Another issue is transparency. If ethical codes of conduct are the rules of the game, and accountability is what happens when those rules are broken, transparency is being able to know when and where abuses of the rules are taking place. If there are procedures and mechanisms in place to alert us when an ethical rule is violated, then we say there exists a high level of transparency. If, however, public officials are able to hide or keep secret their behaviour(s), then there is little or no transparency. This is very important to the effectiveness of any ethical code of conduct. If the rules are to be enforced, and persons are to be held accountable, then we must know when abuses of the rules are taking place.

There are many different ways to encourage transparency. One possibility is the creation of some ethics oversight body that regularly reviews actions taken by public officials. Such a body may be a formal ethics agency or commission, or a series of legislative committees headed by elected politicians. Disclosure requirements for public officials are another means of providing transparency. This would include, for example, requiring public servants and elected politicians to publicly disclose financial assets and other relevant information prior to entering office. Public officials may also be required to disclose any possible conflict of interest situations during the course of carrying out their official duties.

Whistle blower legislation is also often considered an important means of ensuring transparency. In some cases public officials become aware of the unethical conduct of other public officials, but, because of fear, they do not come forward to report such incidents. Many fear reprisals such as losing their jobs or being ostracized from their respective professional communities. Many countries have passed whistle blower legislation to protect these public officials and make it easier for them to come forward with allegations of unethical conduct.

Public awareness and attention can also be important with respect to fostering greater transparency. The public needs to be able to find out when unethical conduct has occurred; it also needs to know what is being done to hold public officials accountable for such behaviour. Several means are available to promote such public awareness. The government can be required to make relevant information widely available to the public, such as the financial assets of public officials and the findings of government reviews and investigations. Further, the government can allow the media and the public access to government documents, for example, through freedom of information legislation. Indeed, public access to government documents has often proved to be an important means for bringing to light unethical conduct in the first place, as the media or concerned members of the public often engage in their own investigations of public officials.


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