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Integrity in the civil service

September 30, 2014

Our emphasis seems to be on producing competent civil servants, not civil servants of integrity and high moral fibre.


By Dr I Lourdesamy

imagesThe recent leaks in the UPSR exam papers are symptomatic of the general malaise in the civil service. It reflects a general decline in ethics and integrity in public bureaucracy and a lack of leadership and supervision in the management and delivery of public services.

The UPSR leak is not an isolated incident. Similar incidents have happened in the past. There are just too many cases of unethical behaviour on the part of civil servants which underscore a more serious moral and ethical problem in public service.

All one needs is to look at the number of corruption cases where civil servants are involved; the financial scandals in public projects; and the lack of accountability and supervision in public decision-making as constantly pointed out by the Auditor-General.

Why this lack of integrity?

How a business runs its affairs is not the concern of everyone. It is private money. But how the government runs its affairs is of public concern because it is taxpayers’ money.

A greater measure of moral and ethical management is called for in the management of public affairs. Clearly, there is a serious decline in ethical leadership in our public service.

This cannot be due to a lack of incentives or training. Civil servants are a protected and privileged group. Numerous benefits have been extended to them since I was a civil servant many years ago. They receive a lot more training now and attend a lot more management courses, including training in Islamic management. There are also more PhD holders now compared to before.

So, it cannot be a problem of competency on the job. Nor can it be a lack of motivation. As I have said, the government has been showering civil servants with benefits, incentives and privileges to ensure their loyalty. So where is the problem?

The problem is integrity

We must not confuse integrity with competence. Our emphasis seems to be on producing competent civil servants, not civil servants of integrity and high moral fibre.

If push comes to shove, it is more important to produce moral civil servants than competent civil servants. No doubt public bureaucracy has to be managed efficiently and effectively. The public expects this, but the public’s expectations for government servants to be clean, fair and neutral, is greater.

Here, the civil service seems to have failed. There is growing competence, but very little integrity and character. In the final analysis, it is the latter that is more important, both in business and government.

Where does the solution lie?

Not in more training, incentives or pay. It lies in selecting the right people, placing them in the right jobs, and engendering a work culture that has zero tolerance for breaches of integrity and ethical behaviour.

We need to produce civil servants with high moral value. It is difficult, but that is the direction we must take. Apart from personal integrity, we need to put in place a system of control, review and evaluation that can quickly detect breaches of ethical behaviour so that timely, corrective actions can be taken.

At present, both supervision and corrective action are lax. There is also no urgency or emphasis in pursuing integrity as a moral principle in public service. Sporadic actions against wrongdoers are not enough. Integrity must be embedded in the very fabric of the civil service as the foundation for administrative behaviour.

Finally, the lopsided structure of the civil service today is not helpful to growing a culture of integrity in the service. The cause of integrity can benefit greatly from more diversity in public bureaucracy. We need greater interaction between different beliefs and value systems that can act as checks and balances in decision-making.

The growing domination of Malays in the civil service is not conducive to creating a set of values that can be the bedrock for a more ethical and neutral civil service. This is especially important in a plural society where the civil service must not only be ethical and neutral but seen to be so.

Dr. I. Lourdesamy is an FMT reader


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