Why talk about ethics at all right now? After all, Canada’s public service is arguably fully focused on undergoing another round of transformational changes, including Blueprint 2020, realignment of service delivery approaches (such as with Shared Services Canada), operating budget cuts, and a potentially fundamental reorientation of its human resources/labour relations legislative and policy regimes.
Two reasons jump to mind.
First, it is good management practice to know whether a healthy, effective state of ethical standards and conduct persists in public organizations. These organizations stay successful because they check to see that the investments they make in themselves achieve the expected results.
Second, rules and expectations for the achievement of a high degree of ethical behaviour by public servants have increased. Since 2006, the government has introduced a number of legislative, policy and organizational changes aimed at strengthening both the ethical standards and the accountability regime for the public service.
Measurement of ethical performance falls into two categories: process and outcome. Process measures look at ethics events and activities quantitatively, such as the percentage of employees attending ethics training, the number of cases initiated and a profile of their results, and elapsed time in answering enquiries or from start to closing an investigation.
But interpretation of these measures is often unclear. If all employees have attended ethics training, what conclusions could you draw? You cannot anticipate how employees will behave when they encounter a challenging ethical issue.
This is where outcomes come into play to measure the effectiveness of an ethics regime. The dominant thinking in some organizations tends to be that if you cannot measure it, it isn’t important. Also, what gets measured is what gets attention and resources. If it is truly important, and you cannot measure it with precision, a solution instead can be to observe, interview, and, on occasion survey, to judge what is important. Examples of possible outcome measures include:
• Trends in unethical/illegal behaviour, observed, verified and results;
• The degree of employee commitment to the organization’s values;
• External stakeholder satisfaction; and
• Whether management is comfortable receiving/delivering “bad news” and demonstrates balance in acting upon poor results.
So how well does the Canadian federal public service seem to be performing these days? Within this space, it can’t be a comprehensive assessment, but with regard to the first outcome above, the regime could be said to be working, albeit perhaps not as often or as in timely a manner as many might wish.
There have been high profile cases involving senior officials, such as the Correctional Investigator and the president of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, both of whom resigned from their jobs after allegations of abuse of their staff and misuse of public funds. Also, prosecutions of administrative and financial fraud and wrongful behaviour cases involving senior departmental managers and other employees have taken place.
However, a number of “red flags” have appeared with respect to performance of other outcomes.
Weaknesses have been observed by external and internal auditors in the oversight of ethics regimes of organizations, including apparent barriers to timely reporting of ethical incidents and their outcomes. Many controls have been put in place as to who in the public service can speak about which issues to whom outside the public service and when, particularly where this concerns potential criticism or “bad news.” Perhaps a particularly worrisome sign is a perceived growth in a breakdown of trust in the public service system itself between managers, employees, senior leaders and the government; this can lead to a “what’s in it for me” behavioural paradigm that undermines an effective ethics regime.
Above all, not measuring the effectiveness of an ethics regime only increases risk and exposure for an organization. Clients, suppliers, employees and communities of interest are wise to ask questions about the federal public service’s intent, commitment and performance in maintaining integrity and proper ethical conduct.
Public sector leaders, managers and employees would all be similarly wise to continue to invest in ensuring that the ethics regime remains effective. They should understand and challenge themselves and others to act upon its strengths and weaknesses, to sustain what needs to be a non-partisan and evidence-based public service that serves Canadians well.