Public Sector Ethics Concerns the Moral Requirements of Public Servants

1 January 2017

Government and society cannot promote and enforce ethical behavior solely throughthe utilization of ethical codes of conduct or through the enforcement oflegislation. Communities tend to equate moral values and moral norms with values andnorms, which apply only to personal dealings. Public sector ethics concerns the moral requirements of public servants in that they are paid for and expected to offer the people. In terms of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act 108 of 1996, all government departments are required to be efficient whichincludes observing particular ethical codes of conduct (Raga and Taylor, 2008).

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In this regard, this essay will be discussing the ethical standards and values expected of public officials in managing public finance by defining what ethics is, recognizing the need for morality and high ethical standards in the public service, identifying the need for ethics in finance and show how ethical standards contribute towards improved service delivery. WHAT IS ETHICS? The question of ethics is one that is linked with the history of mankind. Ethics deals withthe character and conduct and morals of human beings.

It deals with good or bad, right or wrong behaviour, it evaluates conduct against some absolute criteria and putsnegative or positive values on it (Hanekom, 1984:58). Guy (1990:06), agrees with Hanekom because he views ethics as the study of moral judgements and right and wrong conduct. Furthermore, he views ethics as different from law because it involves no formal sanctions. It is different from etiquette because it goesbeyond mere social convention. It is different from religion because it makes notheological assumptions. It is different from prudence because it goes beyond self-interests of others.

Ethics is both a process of inquiry and code of conduct. As acode of conduct, it is like an inner eye that enables people to see the rightness orwrongness of their actions (Guy, 1990:06). The ethical question is closely linked to human existence. The essence of mankind lies in the fact that he/she can reflect upon, as well as evaluate, him/herself and his/herdeeds. Heynes (1986:01), is of the opinion that ethics has to do with the actions of man. Consequently, it requires adjustments in the actions and attitudes of the public managerin relation to his colleagues and the public as well as in relation to himself.

According to De Villiers (1989:162), the basis of the evaluation of human behaviour is to be found in a system of values. Ethical values and integrity as a basic value as well asthe rule of law, are key elements of every democratic society. Public officials in theirdaily execution of their functions and management of public funding, dispose ofdiscretionary competencies. These values must not only protect the citizens’ againsthaphazard use of this public power, but also the public authority itself against any improper use of this power by its public officials.

The public officials themselves must beprotected against any abuse or diversion of law or authority on behalf of the publicauthority or its official bodies (Hondeghem, 1998:173). The common denominator of nearly all people problems is to be found in the area of values. It is widely recognised that values often differ widely from person to person and from culture to culture. The influence of values on people’s thinking, acting and behaviour is underestimated.

According to McMurry (1977:315), the influence of values on the individual is powerful because: (i) They principally determine what he/she regards as right, good, worthy, beautiful and ethical. (ii) They provide the standards and norms by which he/she guides his/her day-today behaviour. (iii) They chiefly determine his/her attitudes toward the causes and issues such as political, economic, social and industrial with which he/she comes into contact daily. (iv) They determine which ideas, principles and concepts he can accept, assimilate, remember and transmit without distortion (McMurry, 1977:315).

In addition to the above, it is accepted that individuals may temporarily or permanently discard their value systems in favour of specific goal attainment. The importance of articulating ethics and the values that define and underpin the public service, cannot be underscored. This is seen as critical to providing both public officials and the public with a common frame of reference regarding the principles and standards to be applied and in assisting public officials to develop an appreciation of the ethical issues involved in effective and efficient public service delivery (Hondeghem, 1998:30).

An example of the importance attached to the above-mentioned ethical principles is found in the Seven Principles of Public Life by the Nolan Committee in the United Kingdom. The principles below, which are set out for the benefit of all who serve the public provide a valuable framework for evaluating recent experience and consider the future. This should be viewed against the background of the distinction between what is and what to be. Selflessness: Public officials should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest.

They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family or their friends. Integrity: Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organizations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties. Objectivity: In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make their choices on merit.

Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office. Public accountability rests both on giving an account and on being held to account. All government departments have to be efficient because they have to ensure value for taxpayers’ money. Efficiency encompasses the qualitative and value-laden expectations of the society.

It can be argued that accountability is the fundamental prerequisite for preventing the abuse of power and for ensuring that power is directed towards the achievement of efficiency, effectiveness, responsiveness and transparency. Open, transparent and accountable government is an imperative prerequisite for community-oriented public service delivery because without it covert unethical behaviour will result. Openness: Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take.

They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest demands it. Honesty: Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest. Leadership: Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example. Ubuntu, which translates to I am because we are, is central to public leadership as it focuses on collective commitment, caring and respect.

The philosophy of ubuntu is closely tied to purpose driven public institutions striving to achieve their mission and full potential. It places much importance on concern for people as well as striving for common goals, which are essentially the underlying purpose of public institutions (Fox, 2010). Broodryk (2005:12) says that ubuntu is about the ark of being a human person. Ubuntu values in the same way that religious people strive to be good.

It is characterized as the human experience of treating people with respect; humanness, meaning that being human comprises values such as universal brotherhood and sharing, and treating and respecting others as human beings (Fox, 2010). It is also a way of life contributing positively to sustaining the wellbeing of people, the community or society and a non-racial philosophy applicable to all people as human beings. Ethics is rooted in the process of systematic thinking about what is moral, and reaching judgments about wrong and right, bad and good, with the output resulting in behaviors and decisions.

All authorities, through to their employees make choices based on their values and priorities. In most cases, the choices that they have to make are not clear-cut, and involve competing values and desired outcomes (Mavuso and Balia, 1999). Any formal, written code, law or regulation is merely a set of guidelines and general principles that individuals are expected to abide by and cannot persuade people in particular instances but instead guide them in a direction that is acceptable by law.

This goes on to show that there is a need for employees with good judgment on ethics issues and for the existence of both formal and informal systems of monitoring and evaluating outputs and outcomes of behaviors and decisions. Given the values and priorities framework evolving from the legislation that has been enacted, where policies have been set, and actions have been taken by political leaders, the public sector should further operationalize them and develop implementation plans for them . In this regard, explicit standards that direct public sector activities and tools that are to be used n transforming the structure, process and management strategies, including outputs and outcomes of the public sector have been put in place.

In support of the government’s agenda through the legal framework, namely the Batho Pele principles and the Constitution of South Africa. The adoption of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (Act 108 of 1996) heralds a significant new phase in the South African local government transitionprocess. In terms of section 40 (1) of the 1996 Constitution, government is constitutedas national, provincial and local spheres, which are distinctive, interdependent andinterrelated.

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