Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Ethical Conduct Among Public Officials

By Marcus M. Mottley, Ph.D.

According to a recent report in the Antigua Sun newspaper, Justice Don Mitchell QC said that, “Generations of Antiguans have lost all knowledge of what is the proper way to treat public assets and how to behave with the greatest propriety and what rules there are that should be followed; so that well-meaning people, people who mean best, simply don’t know, simply don’t understand what the correct procedures are.”

Wow! Generations who had lost all knowledge... Generations of well-meaning people who simply don't know and simply don't understand how to behave... what rules there are... what rules should be followed... what correct procedures are?

Justice Mitchell reportedly said that over the years Antigua & Barbuda had become a case study “of the phenomenon where there’s been a decline in the attention to integrity and good governance.”

Over the last quarter century, Antigua and Barbuda had become a 'case study' in poor governance and the decline of integrity. A 'case' for the world to see, wonder and marvel at, evaluate, and... yes... 'study'!

Although he did not reveal the details of his findings, he did indicate that whatever he found during his investigation of public officials, “It was not because they are corrupt, but that they simply don’t know any better.”

The decline of integrity, increases in impropriety, exhibition of poor governance, questions about corruption, not knowing how to treat public assets - these are all symptoms of very low levels of ethical conduct among public officials.

The management of ethics in public office is an essential part of good governance. It is a way to ensure the credibility of any public administration which may suffer from a lack of public respect and which may be criticized for a paucity of honesty, integrity and impartiality. Such seems to have been the case in Antigua and Barbuda during the long tenure of the previous administration.

The United Progressive Party (UPP), in its 2004 Manifesto seem to have recognized the need for ethics in public office in its assertion that “Integrity will be the bedrock of the UPP” if they were elected. Surely, the UPP recognized (as have many other commonwealth governments around the world) that without a Code of Ethics which is vigorously enacted, monitored and faithfully employed, there is the potential for a “weakening of the moral compass of ministers and civil servants, a greater willingness to contemplate actions which are improper, and an unhealthy closeness between ministers and civil servants” to the detriment of the country's citizens.

Many Antiguans and Barbudans would undoubtedly agree that such ‘weakening of the moral compass of ministers and civil servants’ might have been demonstrated in March, 2004 with the reportedly clandestine removal of files from various ministries by public officials - purportedly at the behest of their ministerial superiors.

Furthermore, during the last quarter century, hundreds of allegations were directed against public officials that seem to have indicated that some public servants had an increasingly ‘greater willingness to contemplate actions that were improper’. However, I hasten to add that many of these allegations highlighted in various media presumed not contemplation of improper actions… but assumed that ‘improper actions’ were actually carried out at the ministerial level and at all grades and ranks of public officials.

It has also been suggested that in such situations as existed over the last quarter century here in Antigua and Barbuda, that some government leaders seem to have treated the Civil Service like its ‘fiefdom’. According to one theorist, when a government emanates a strong scent, the Civil Service is likely to pick it up. Some are repelled by it, some attracted to it. As a consequence, the Civil Service becomes highly politicized. This was the case… is the case… in Antigua and Barbuda. It is still the case today because many of the Civil Servants who seemed to have identified themselves with the former administration’s ‘fiefdom’ appear not to have relinquished their identity. They continue to act in ways that question their integrity and impartiality as it relates to the carrying out of their duties as Civil Servants and public officials.

Adding to the confusion on this issue is the tenet that “Civil Servants should fully serve the Government of the day.” While it is clear that Civil Servants should fully carry out the dictates and mandates of the Government of day, it should also be noted that Civil Servants cannot do so in contravention of other legal, ethical or professional precepts or requirements. In other words, Civil Servants have an obligation to give honest and faithful service, to act in a manner consistent with the bond of trust and confidence of the citizenry, to act impartiality and with integrity, and to obey the law.

Even more importantly, ethical behavior applies to Ministers of Government and top public officials. For example, the code of conduct of one commonwealth government, states that, “Ministers have a duty to refrain from asking or instructing civil servants to do things which they should not do.” They also have a duty to ensure that Civil Servants are not asked to engage in activities likely to call in question their 'political impartiality', or to give rise to the criticism that public funds are being used for party or political purposes.”

When one attends to the very loud public discourse in the media, it is clear that issues such as maladministration, corruption, lack of integrity and impropriety in public office are increasingly areas of deep concern to the citizens of Antigua and Barbuda.

With the foregoing in mind, and with full awareness that the UPP Government has made a commitment to increase the levels of integrity, transparency and accountability in public administration, it seems that it is time to place a higher level of focus and sustained attention to improving the ethical and professional behaviors of public officials of all grades and ranks in Antigua and Barbuda.

Antigua and Barbuda cannot continue to be “a case study of the phenomenon where there’s been a decline in the attention to integrity and good governance.” We cannot accept that, “It was not because they are corrupt, but that they simply don’t know any better.” We will not accept it from Ministers of Government and other elected officials, Senators, Consultants, Advisors, Statutory Board Members, Permanent Secretaries or any other public official.

I must address Justice Mitchell's statement that 'it wasn't because they are corrupt', and that these highly place, highly qualified officials 'simply don't know any better.' His assertions stretches my imagination to its very limits... and I still find it hard to accept... that they 'simply don't know any better'. But, we may not ever be able to prove that some officials, in recent or past history, acted and behaved consciously, willingly, purposefuly and with full intent.

So, we must first accept that they can and must do better.

Secondly, we must ensure that future generations of Antiguan and Barbudan public officials regain and then retain the knowledge and practice of propriety, integrity and honesty in the pursuance of their obligations as ‘Civil’ servants!

Thirdly, we must put the mechanisms in place to hold public officials fully accountable for unethical conduct. Such mechanisms must have sanctions as sharp as shark teeth. And those who monitor their behaviors must be vigilant and demonstrate their willingness to apply the sanctions.

Generations of Antiguans and Barbudans will greatly appreciate that our twin island state would have become a 'case study' in excellent governance, with demonstrated high levels of propriety and integrity!