Dancing with the Devil: Institutionalizing integrity in public administration – Canadian Government Executive

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January 17, 2013

Dancing with the Devil: Institutionalizing integrity in public administration

Following Singapore’s independence in 1965, the controversial leadership of Lee Kuan Yew transformed this former British trading post into a thriving island city-state at the crossroads of Southeast Asia. It now has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world and has virtually stamped out corruption. Meanwhile, low-income colonial contemporaries languish in the lower quartile of the corruption index.

Corruption is held to be a symptom of the failure of institutional governance, resulting in poor public management and service delivery. Good governance starts with democratic institutions, where more transparency means less corruption. Should the aim be to combat problems or to institutionalize change? Is it more politically correct these days to talk about integrity? Does the homily – “Character is what you do when nobody is looking” – adequately explain the corruption pandemic?

Transparency International brought together 1,900 people from 140 countries at the 15th International Conference on Anti-Corruption in Brazil on 7-10 November 2012. The Brasilia Declaration mobilized citizens, communities, and civil society to counter the abuse of entrusted power. Recognizing that impunity undermines integrity everywhere, the rallying cry was “don’t let them get away with it.”

IPAC’s recent e-dialogue witnessed wide-ranging exchanges – global-local, organizational-individual, political-civil, philosophical-technical, criminal-petty. Host Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi of UNDP deduced five ways to restore integrity systems and open government: (1) multidisciplinary approaches; (2) context and institutional analysis; (3) inclusive engagement; (4) informal mechanisms; and (5) ICT.

The futility and lessons of past efforts underscore the need to reframe the issues and strategies:

•    Discerning Context: Criminalizing corruption is not a replacement for cultural values. In Kenya, corruption is a way of life that permeates the socio-economic and political fabric. Despite 20 years of government reform, the vice continues unabated. Singapore, on the other hand, sees it as a personal choice and strictly enforces the law against corrupt practices.
•    Networking Government: Creating anti-corruption institutions is not a panacea for systemic problems. In Zambia, a coalition of 40 public institutions takes a holistic approach under the umbrella of national policy. Like Singapore, whole-of-government coordination and integration harness greater interests and corrupt elements in the cause.
•    Developing Capacity: Fighting corruption is a generational issue requiring sustained commitment and resources. In Singapore, PS21 reforms are crucial to attract and retain strategic leaders who are steeped in integrity, service and excellence. Decentralized HRM, rigorous performance management, and competitive compensation fortify their resolve.

John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Executive in Residence: Public Management with the Schulich School of Business at York University (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca or johnkwilkins@gmail.com).

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