Ethics and integrity in politics and public life – OPINION

Ethics and Integrity in Politics and Public Life

23 September 2020

This opinion piece provides an introductory, cryptic exposé of relevant key concepts: the essence of democracy and democratic government, the intrinsic character and quality of integrity and ethical conduct, the necessity of transparency and accountability in politics and public life, and the enormous challenges posed by the scourge of corruption for public service delivery.

Politics and public service can no longer reject or ignore ethical challenges however they may be handled. And, from the outset, it is important to remember that there are four fundamental values underpinning the practice of politics that must always be realised: the limitation of power, effective (competent) governance, accountable and transparent government, and justice. Although ‘ethics and integrity in politics’ seem to many a contradiction in terms (even though many politicians and public servants try to give their best for the common good of country), ethics and integrity in politics are not only desirable, but possible – it is not a naïve dream. Ethics and integrity are, metaphorically speaking, two sides of the same coin.

However, today the world and South Africa are at the crossroads. Citizens want a ‘servant state’, not a ‘predatory or vampire state’ run by a self-serving clique of state managers and, certainly, not a ‘nanny state’. What passes for integrity, ethics, transparency and accountability in politics and public life is much diminished. There is less expectation of honest, forthright, morally committed behaviour, and so everyone takes less notice when these virtues are absent. One is used to spin, to handlers (spokespersons), to glib phrases and euphemisms, to procrastination, obfuscation, and concealment as part of politics and public service. The likely consequences for democratic society and governance are, therefore, not encouraging.

In essence, democracy is about the use of power and the management of conflict, a set of political institutions and processes based on the principles of popular control over public decisions and decision-makers, and equality of voice between citizens in the exercise of that control. There are no blueprints for democracy, since every country’s political institutions and practices are shaped by its own historical, cultural, social and economic background. But democracy cannot thrive without basic conditions of human security, a civic political culture that allows for the rule of law and the protection of basic freedoms, a common sense of national sovereignty, citizenship and nationhood, and a supportive regional and international environment.

Then again, democratic government requires functioning institutions: a parliament or legislature that represents the people, not one controlled by the presidency, or the executive, or the bureaucracy; an independent judiciary that enforces the rule of law, and where every person is equal before the law; well-functioning political parties; an accessible media that is free, independent and unbiased, not controlled by the state or by corporate interests; and a vibrant civil society, one that can be a watchdog over government and interest groups, and provide alternative forms of political participation.

Although the characteristics of good governance oftentimes remain rather elusive, it can be defined as including widespread participation by all citizens, decision-making through the rule of law, transparency in the actions of governance institutions, responsiveness to the needs and aspirations of citizens, an orientation towards consensus, equity in the treatment of citizens, effectiveness and efficiency in the use of public resources, public accountability and transparency, and the exercise of strategic vision in planning for development. Of extreme importance and a fundamental prerequisite, a sine qua non, for good governance is a shared platform of ethical values, encompassing personal, political and social/associational ethics. Although the impact of political ethics stretches much wider and deeper than good governance, it serves as its driving force, its inspiration.

The concept ethos is grounded in the moral ideas and attitudes inherent in a particular society, like exhibiting an ethos of public service, whereas ethics revolves around the moral principles that should control the behaviour or conduct of politicians and public servants. This relates to beliefs and principles about what is right (honest, morally correct, and acceptable), or wrong (dishonest, morally unjust, and unacceptable). It is about keeping to certain rules of ethical behaviour and to follow an implicit (unspoken) or explicit (written) code of ethics. It embeds a decisive value in political life by securing fair treatment of all stakeholders, stressing equity, emphasising that the limitation of governmental power is essential, and adding a long-term perspective or vision.

The firm adherence to a code of ethical values underpins the principle of integrity: the quality of being honest, being incorruptible; showing a strictly honourable demeanour, an uprightness or probity in character; and exhibiting strong moral principles and behaving with a strong sense of integrity in all matters of public life. At the core of integrity is authenticity, truthfulness and sincerity, lucidity and commitment to the cause; objectivity and impartiality in decision-making; and ensuring that decisions are not influenced by nepotism, favouritism, other improper motives, or corrupt practices. Integrity is marked by selfless service based solely on the public interest, demonstrated by honesty in the execution of public duties, the declaration of any personal interest that may conflict with public duties (transparency), and accountability to the public for decisions and actions taken. Ultimately, integrity can be depicted as the alignment of five factors represented by the formula: I = E + A + C + T – C, where Integrity equals Ethics plus Accountability plus Competence plus Transparency minus Corruption.

The principle of transparency requires that government not conceal or shroud something in secrecy simply to secure the approval of citizens or to avoid disapproval of what it does. There is a lack of transparency when politicians or public officials attempt to hide corrupt conduct by using state machinery to suppress or deny access to information; fail to disclose fully the nature and effects of on-going programmes, or the regular business of government that affects all citizens; or disclosure that is deliberately obscured by misleading statistics and trumped-up explanations and attempts at justification, whatever other judgements apply.

The principle of accountability means that politicians and public servants must bear full responsibility for decisions or actions they support and take, and for the consequences of formulated policies and implemented legislation. They must expect to not only be held accountable, but to explain these decisions and actions when asked to do so, thus displaying a responsiveness to legitimate queries. The level of accountability may vary: it may be restricted to a narrow and confidential group of technocrats, or it may be open and public with information widely disseminated, or it may go into some detail, or remain rather general.

For good governance, the quality of accountability and transparency becomes critical, and may even be regarded as the most distinctive features of ethics in politics. Ultimately, in politics and in public service, politicians and officials must be held accountable to the electorate and to taxpayers, and they must be transparent in their actions. Hence, a functioning democracy is accountable and transparent and must listen to the expectations of its citizens. What must be curbed is the prevalence of unaccountable and non-transparent government which manifests itself in a tendency to limit independent political enquiry (by the media and non-governmental organisations) outside an institutional network controlled by the ruling party-state.

One should also be mindful of the fact that ethics cannot be prescribed by law. A pragmatic approach is therefore needed, avoiding a stand that is too theoretical and too moralistic, reflecting the concrete dilemmas that confront politicians, leaders in society, intellectuals, and concerned citizens. Max Weber reminded us that political ethics cannot be grounded solely in motivation and intention but must also take account of the consequences and outcomes (results) of decisions. This means that decision-makers must take responsibility for decisions and the resulting consequences, even if these contradict or defeat the initial purpose. Indeed, the merit of ethics in a social context is measured mainly by consequences and outcomes: laws are respected or criticised because of their outcomes and impact (consequences), not their broad objectives.

The saga of non-payment crippling the finances of the South African National Road Agency’s Gauteng e-toll road system is a striking example. This was, most probably, the first signs of passive resistance by a disenchanted and financially exploited taxpaying public — followed by many similar protest actions, either openly or concealed.

In all political traditions, ethical responsibility in society is constantly addressed; the pendulum swings between two extremes: ethics as a frame of reference for politics, and politics completely delinked from any ethical accountability.  

The abuse of public office or entrusted power for private gain is known as corruption. It undermines institutions, destroys lives and communities, translates into human suffering (citizens being extorted for bribes to access public services), leads to failure in the delivery of basic services (like clean water, sanitation, education, healthcare, and personal safety), derails the building of essential infrastructure, and generates popular anger that threatens to further destabilise societies and exacerbate violent conflict. Examples are the constant service-delivery protests in many urban and rural parts of the country, often degenerating into violent destruction and the looting of property.

People are corrupt when they are willing to submit to dishonest, immoral or illegal behaviour in return for money, or to get an advantage. Corruption refers to practices, especially of people in authority, when they have the power or ability to be corrupt, the opportunity to be corrupt, and the motivation to be corrupt. Corruption thrives because the state can be used as a mechanism for ensuring upward mobility or patronage, easing the way for private access to public resources. Thus, the apparatus of the state becomes the means for an elite to acquire wealth, rather than serving as a corrective mechanism to promote social justice and sustainable development. There is, therefore, a need to develop strategies that uncouple private wealth accumulation through corruption from access to public office through politics.

Three factors are of fundamental importance in politics and lie at the root of what Benoît Girardin calls the ‘Ethical Tree’: the limitation of power, effective (competent) governance, and the accountability (also transparency) of government.

The trunk of the ethical tree expands into six branches or clusters of cardinal values, referred to here as the ‘Ethical Hexagon’, related to inward and outward perspectives and basic political requirements for social coherence: responsibility and freedom, peace and security, identity and/in diversity, sustainability, solidarity, equity and the rule of law. Once the holders of political power accept the limitation of power and see this as positive and essential, systems are lean, effective and solution-oriented, and decision-makers are held accountable, then policies have a much better chance of being stable, accepted and sustained, and risks anticipated.

At the heart of ethical politics and policies is justice. A reasonable level of justice works like mortar, binding a society together. Justice, or perceived justice, nurtures trust in authority and political power among citizens once they feel that the rule of law will apply equally to all, irrespective of status or position. Justice represents the trunk of the ethical tree, allowing regimes to find a sure foundation and citizens to live together peacefully in a pluralistic society.

Political power may face a big risk if it fails to reach a minimum threshold score on all six values (as with fragile, failing or failed states), or at least on some of the six; an average score is not sufficient. When good scores on some values are lined up against extremely poor scores on others, a regime is strongly unbalanced and therefore at risk. It is better to score adequately on each of the six values than to perform only on some of the six.

Quite often politicians and citizens face situations where values conflict, each claiming priority: on the economy, the constant tussle between austerity and growth; on the environment, a permanent trade-off between sustainability and solidarity, responsibility, equity, security, and identity. In matters of trade, countries are torn between equity and responsibility (free access for agricultural products, no hidden subsidies). Security, justice, and sustainability cannot be reached without settling the trade-off with equity. Domestic conflicts (with international implications) vacillate between security, identity and diversity, freedom and responsibility to a point where equity and solidarity are at stake. Accommodating minorities and ethnic tensions require that not only equity and security, but also unity and/in diversity should be assured.

Indeed, moral dilemmas are the ‘daily bread and butter’ of politics: efficiency versus freedom, reduction of emissions versus transport development, and action versus inaction (is it permissible, morally right, to let gross human rights violations continue unchecked? – the genocidal actions of the Syrian and Myanmar regimes come to mind). Political decisions are quite often caught between efficiency (speedy action under strong leadership) and legitimacy (a lengthy process of consultation and negotiation).

Ethics (values) point to what is suitable, better, more effective, ‘the order of the good’, and are the kind of principles on which people are not willing to compromise. Norms, on the other hand, refer to prescriptions and imperatives. In politics, values without interests are as dangerous as interests without values; both are necessary, and they exist in creative tension with each other. Ethics (values) and politics (interests) do not merge but intersect. Thus, convergences between politics and ethics remain fragile and are never fully realised.

Because of divergent ethical perspectives, sharing values is critical if interactive government is to serve the common interest. Patterns of interaction are open, complex and volatile: states (governments) may have short or long-term perspectives; business corporations may seek or strive to secure resources and markets in the longer term; trade unions may seek to promote the interests of workers; civil society (associations, the media, and think-tanks) may demand an emotional ‘quick fix’ or display an awareness of longer-term sustainability; and multilateral institutions and international NGOs may have farsighted objectives, or become the plaything of conflicting parties.

Critical is to keep open a diversity of perspectives and interests and to fashion compromises without downplaying or dismissing one set of interests — inclusiveness is a modern political value. Each player will articulate specific values and interests, with an emphasis (more or less) on particular and vested interests, or common and global interests. The complexity and unpredictability of outcomes, consequences and impacts of decisions mean that all players must be able to rely on shared values, shaped through a process in which all actors respect the governing rules. Too often many public servants forget the very purpose for which they are paid by the taxpayer — and the loss of a public service ethos becomes the death-knell of public service itself. And, not surprisingly, governments have become bureaucratic, outmoded, inefficient, irresponsive, rigid, bloated, and wasteful.

The most important characteristic of interactive government (in essence, its reinvention) is that it is seen to be people-centred. In fact, the recognition that government exists to serve citizens has driven the search for a new governance paradigm. As the sphere of government activities expanded over the years, public servants became more like masters and rulers, rather than servants of the public; and as the bureaucracy acquired a virtual monopoly on delivering services, a preoccupation with compliance to rules made systems inefficient and receptively indifferent to the concerns of citizens. In the process, the ethos of civil service was distorted if not ‘flogged to death’, and service delivered in a manner determined by the convenience of the government rather than based on the wishes and preferences of the citizenry. Thus, the delivery of a better and more efficient civil service has, in many ways, become the test of a government’s ability to keep or regain its legitimacy and the trust of its citizens.

However, transitioning to a new governance paradigm and changing bureaucratic culture will take some time. In fact, creating a regulatory regime and structure that is honest, reliable, uncomplicated, and at the same time rigorously enforced is, perhaps, the greatest challenge for any government. For a regulatory regime to work effectively, an essential pre-condition is a sound judiciary and the rule of law, neither of which can be taken for granted in developing countries. And although politics is mainly the responsibility of the state (the government, policy-makers, the bureaucracy) which should always provide the leadership, private-sector business, civil society (organised associations, the media, think-tanks) and trade unions are increasingly influential, enjoy more and more input and are able to advance their own interests and values.

The relationship between politics and ethics oscillates between a close alignment and an almost complete mutual exclusion. Ethics appears to be more of an art form than a science; and it has been, and is still being, disputed whether the main driving force of ethics in politics is public usefulness, the public good, justice, fairness, shared values, or commonly contracted interests. Scepticism about the relevance of ethics in politics, therefore, persists and it is fed not only by the experience of human failure and disaster, but also by the constant gap between declared intention and practical implementation, between promise and realisation. Whereas an intense revival of ethics may nowadays be observed in domains such as healthcare and medical interventions, economic and corporate business practices, and environmental management, the political domain remains largely untouched, not to say ignored, by any ethical elaboration.

For citizens to start trusting democracy enough to be keepers of democratic values, they need to feel that they are treated impartially and are equal before the law, and that playing into the various justifications for tolerating and engaging in corrupt practices is not morally and ethically correct. Similarly, political and public service elites who are the main decision-makers need to show the necessary political will to enforce existing laws, strengthen transparency, integrity and accountability systems, think more in terms of the interests of all (society as a whole) and not in terms of furthering their own, personal interests.

* The author holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of South Africa (Unisa) in Pretoria. He is a former Executive Director of the Africa Institute of South Africa, and Nelson Mandela Chair Professor in the Centre for African Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, India. He is retired and lives in Pretoria but is still academically active.   

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