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‘A compliant culture is an unreflective culture’: ethics at Public Sector Week

Where people aren’t doing what the government wants them to do, compliance is often the easiest tool to reach for.

After all, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But compliance alone will not ensure an ethically sound public service, argued Dr Simon Longstaff, executive director of the Ethics Centre, at a Public Sector Week session asking ‘are we doing government ethically?’

In a provocative statement that undoubtedly sent a shiver down the spine of the lawyers in the room, Longstaff told the IPAA Victoria event:

“A compliant culture is an unreflective culture, because no-one has to think.

“Because if you create a world where no-one can choose to do anything wrong by having every single circumstance covered by a rule or by a system of surveillance, then inadvertently what you create is a world in which no-one can choose to do anything right.

“Once you eliminate choice from the equation, you eliminate it on both sides of the equation. That creates a very deep pool of systemic risk in organisations where it occurs.”

He prompted discussion among attendees about whether it is justified for citizens to bend the rules when government has made them inflexible, and whether it is ethical for government to prosecute them for doing so. The government might have had good reason for doing so — while we tend to think of ethical choices in terms of right and wrong, many are between competing goods.

While compliance is important — many policies will not work otherwise, and people dislike it when others think the rules don’t apply to themselves — cracking down on rule breakers can backfire if it’s disproportionate or if the rules themselves are seen as unjust.

Longstaff proposes four “genuinely difficult questions” to test whether a government, or an agency, is governing ethically.

  • Is it reflective rather than merely compliant?
  • Is it fit for purpose, that is: does it properly see the use of public power, or public good, as opposed to partial or private goods?
  • Is it in conformity not just with its defining purpose, but the core values and principles that exist?
  • Does it make provision for people within the public service itself to deal with these dilemmas by organising themselves around good reasons and providing the kind of support that people need?

People using their own judgment to make good choices is a key part of what makes an ethical government, he argued.

“The first thing an ethical government would need to do is engage in reflective practice. It would be part of such a government that it, whether in the political class, or the public service itself, actively engage in, think about, and debate these sorts of tensions that we’ve seen.

“The second thing is that it would be an organisation in which reasons determined outcome, rather than rank in a hierarchy. This is a very challenging idea when you’ve got any kind of bureaucracy because the typical assumption is that the secretary knows better than the person you recruited last week,” said Longstaff.

“An ethical government will be one in which the best reason prevails.”

The reason will be judged best not by some kind of purely subjective standard, but by determining whether it’s consistent with the defining purpose of that organisation — using power for the public good.

“Ethical decision making is not about those moments where you have ‘capital E’ ethical issues, like same sex marriage, whether to use embryos in stem cell research, or whether to have the death penalty. They’re frequently labelled in the media as ethical questions,” he explained.

“In fact every choice and decision you make is, in principle, an ethical decision which has an effect on the world. If you think about everything around us, our institutions, our architecture, our technology, all of those are simply an agglomeration of other decisions being brought together at that particular point in time. Our institutions could have been different at a different point in time, our architecture could have been different if different choices were made.”

Image source: IPAA Victoria.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.