This module is a resource for lecturers  


Key issues


Integrity of the public sector - or public integrity - refers to the use of powers and resources entrusted to the public sector effectively, honestly and for public purposes. Additional related ethical standards that the public sector is expected to uphold include transparency, accountability, efficiency and competence. Staff members of the United Nations, for example, are required to "uphold the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity", and integrity is defined by the United Nations Staff Regulations as including but not limited to "probity, impartiality, fairness, honesty and truthfulness in all matters affecting their work and status" (UN Staff Regulations 1.2(b)). The concept of public integrity has also been defined in broader terms as "the consistent alignment of, and adherence to, shared ethical values, principles and norms for upholding and prioritising the public interest over private interests in the public sector" (OECD, 2017, p. 7).

Public integrity is essential for advancing the public good and ensuring the legitimacy of public organizations. It is also considered an antithesis to corruption, as recognized by articles 7 and 8 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). However, strengthening integrity in the public service is a complex challenge that involves more than merely requiring staff members to uphold personal and professional ethical standards. Without an ethical culture and an appropriate integrity management system at the organizational level, civil servants may confront obstacles which will prevent them from acting with integrity on the individual level despite their best efforts.

Integrity and Ethics Module 1 (Introduction and Conceptual Framework) and Module 14 (Professional Ethics) explore in detail the issues of personal and professional standards of integrity and ethics, which apply at the individual level. The present Module, by contrast, focuses on the approaches through which integrity and ethics can be strengthened in the public sector at the organization level. Such an organizational perspective is not entirely divorced from the individual level standards, but it amounts to a systemic approach that combines measures for promoting ethics at the individual level (e.g. training, leading by example) with organizational measures such as audits, complaint mechanisms, hotlines, disciplinary bodies and proceedings, rules and procedures aimed to reduce opportunities for unethical behaviour, and incentives for encouraging individuals to speak up against unethical behaviour (such as those discussed in Integrity and Ethics Module 7 (Strategies for Ethical Action)).

Against this backdrop, the Module discusses public integrity from an organizational perspective. In this context, it examines the concept of 'integrity management', as well as the use of codes of conduct and other measures for promoting ethics within public organizations. Its key message is that to ensure integrity and ethics in public organizations, there is a need for a systemic approach which combines compliance-based (or rule-based) and value-based elements (Huberts, 2014, p. 179). To situate the discussion within the broader context of public service, the Module begins with an overview of public service goals, values and obligations. It subsequently discusses public integrity management and some of the key instruments for strengthening public integrity.


Public service goals, values and obligations

The public service in any country consists of public organizations and the individuals working within them. Public organizations are specifically established by the State to fulfil public purposes and remain directly accountable to the state. Such organizations include ministries, public hospitals, public schools, the military, police, and so on. The purpose of public organizations is to serve the public interest, i.e. the interest of the whole community. This contrasts with private organizations, such as companies, that often only serve private interests of the owners or shareholders.

Another key difference between public and private organizations is that the former are funded largely by obligatory contributions from citizens, namely, taxes and fees. This means that individuals have no choice but to finance the services, as opposed to the free choice at the basis of consumer decisions in the private sector. The legitimacy of the public service, therefore, depends on citizens' trust. To win this trust, public service needs to be just, fair, transparent, responsive to citizens' needs, and compliant with the relevant laws, regulations and quality standards. In addition, results must be achieved through an impartial, lawful and accountable process. These are key public service values, which underpin the effective operation of the governance system. When citizens regard public service delivery as a legitimate process, they are likely to comply with the relevant rules and norms. This, in turn, will lead to a more efficient governance system which can focus on delivering services and promoting public interests rather than coercing compliance.

State-owned enterprises are sometimes viewed as a bridge between the two sectors, because they are owned by the State and usually support a key socio-economic objective (e.g. electricity or telecommunications), but they operate on commercial principles. However, since they are State-owned and State-funded they should adhere to ethical standards of public organizations. There can of course be private organizations that provide services with social characteristics, such as private hospitals. But they are not State-owned or State-funded and therefore not considered public organizations. It is noted that irrespective of the differences between the private and public sectors, all organizations must comply with the laws and regulations specific to their area of work, such as those related to health and safety standards, data protection rules, and environmental regulations. In addition, professional employees, where in public or private organizations, must uphold professional ethical standards.

The employees of public organizations are often called public servants or public officials. The latter term is defined broadly by the UNCAC as:

(i) any person holding a legislative, executive, administrative or judicial office of a State Party, whether appointed or elected, whether permanent or temporary, whether paid or unpaid, irrespective of that person's seniority; (ii) any other person who performs a public function, including for a public agency or public enterprise, or provides a public service, as defined in the domestic law of the State Party and as applied in the pertinent area of law of that State Party; (iii) any other person defined as a "public official" in the domestic law of a State Party.

For present purposes, the terms public servant and public official are understood according to the broad UNCAC definition.

Public servants are expected to make decisions with high levels of professionalism and commitment to the public good, and in a transparent and accountable manner. The three most essential obligations of public servants, which underpin their public decision-making, are to follow the law, use public resources in an effective manner, and act ethically. The importance of the obligation to act ethically is emphasized in article 8 of the UNCAC, which requires States to promote "integrity, honesty and responsibility among its public officials" in order to prevent corruption. In addition, public servants are also expected to reflect on all the values and principles included in the code of ethics or code of conduct that guide the work of their institution (Lewis and Gilman, 2012, pp. 28-30). Failure on any of these fronts would carry the risk of damaging public trust, and therefore harming the quality and effectiveness of the system. Lewis and Gilman have described the public servant as a "temporary steward" who is entrusted with power and authority to make decisions on behalf of the community. They refer to five core ethical values in the public service: accountability, impartiality, justice and fairness, avoiding harm, and doing good. They break down these core values into action principles as illustrated in the following table:

Value 1 - Accountability

 Action principles:

  • Reject incompetence
  • Seek efficiency
  • Seek effectiveness
  • Take responsibility for what is done and how
  • Facilitate transparency
  • Listen and be responsive

Value 2 - Impartiality

Action principles:

  • Avoid conflict of interest
  • Seek inclusion
  • Be objective
  • Pursue the public interest

Value 3 - Justice and fairness

Action principles:

  • Comply with law
  • Seek procedural and substantive justice
  • Seek fair distribution of public benefits

Value 4 - Avoiding doing harm

Action principles:

  • Provide remedy or relief
  • Use moral imagination

Value 5 - Do good

Action principles:

  • Employ empathy
  • Give affirmative help
Table 1: Public Service Core Values and Action Principles

Public integrity management

As noted earlier, public organizations serve the welfare of the community. They are under an obligation to use the resources entrusted to them effectively and efficiently, and according to legal norms and shared ethical values. The traditional approach to promoting ethics in public organizations was based on enforceable rules and discipline. During the last decades, however, the increasing level of complexity and speed of change in the world called for more flexible adjustment processes in public service delivery. In this context, delegation of decision making and wider discretion was allocated to staff. While such delegation and discretion potentially produces better results and more motivated public servants, they also carry the risk of misuse by unethical officials, who may use their power for private gain instead of advancing the public interest. To manage the ethical risk involved in discretionary decisions, and to strengthen the organizational integrity, public organizations put in place internal controls as well as performance and accountability frameworks. In parallel, public organizations adopt procedures aimed at strengthening employee motivation and promoting rule-based and principled decision-making. Alongside these, legal norms and regulations external to the organization require adherence to certain standards. Finally, a variety of internal and external bodies promote public integrity and compliance through means of investigation, auditing, training, and other functions. The system of laws, regulations, policies, practices, officials, bodies and units that promote ethical decision making, prevent corruption and advance the public good is generally referred to as an integrity management system (OECD, 2017, p. 9). Such systems might not always be called 'integrity management systems' but the concept is useful for present purposes as it acknowledges that promoting integrity and ethics in the public sector requires a systemic approach.                                                                                                            

The starting point for the design of a public integrity management system is the mission: serving the community. Organizations define goals and values that derive from that mission, and translate those into operational rules that are conducive to the desired results. To ensure that daily activities are carried out in accordance with the operational rules, organizations establish internal control systems (e.g. in financial management and procurement). For operational rules and the corresponding internal control systems to make sense and be effective, the values and goals of the organization need to be aligned with the professional standards of the contributing professions. This can be a challenge in the case of public organizations that have wide and diverse mandates and many contributing professions that are guided by very different paradigms, such as in the case of a local municipality.

Take, for example, a local municipality's budgeting rules. The declared values of the organization (the local municipality) include responsiveness to citizens' expectations, accountability, respect for social cohesion, and sustainability. The declared goals are to support the vulnerable, ensure infrastructure availability throughout the municipality, maintain economic activities and working opportunities within the jurisdiction, promote effective and efficient use of resources, and maintain sustainable financial management. In a budget allocation process, the finance professionals will expect adequate spending ceilings and cost-benefit calculations. The engineers who implement infrastructure projects, in most cases, can easily provide quantitative calculations and adjust them to spending ceilings. The social service professionals, on the other hand, will require some discretion in individual cases in order to provide effective support for the vulnerable, as such support should be tailored to meet the needs in each individual case. Thus, the decision criteria for infrastructure projects could be quite simple and may even be included in the infrastructure strategy. But for social assistance schemes, a different decision making procedure needs to be in place, with discretion allocated to the social department and the establishment of an internal control system that would ensure that the decisions are not biased or corrupt (e.g. involving a social committee or a higher decision maker as well as the legal department). Hence, different domains require different processes that lead to budgetary decisions, as well as different kinds of operational rules and internal controls.

Moreover, rules and regulations are not sufficient on their own to guarantee integrity. Organizations must ensure that their integrity management system exists not only on paper, but is also translated into day-to-day practice. Part of this is a question of competencies, skills and discipline of staff. Another part is aspirational: staff should be committed to apply the rules. For this to occur, the personal and professional values of staff need to be aligned with organizational goals and practices. In this sense, an integrity management system aims to align these components, for example, through training, codes of conduct and codes of ethics. Such a systemic approach to integrity management is valuable because it targets the organization as a whole and seeks to ensure that organizational rules and values are mutually supportive and shared by all stakeholders.

While staff commitment and competence are essential for ensuring public ethics, accountability and enforcement measures are important as well. In this context, organizations must adopt procedures for reporting on integrity breaches as well as protection measures for those who report. Organizations should also put in place disciplinary regimes and control mechanisms such as internal audits and internal investigations. As discussed in further depth in Integrity and Ethics Module 7 (Strategies for Ethical Action), promoting a culture of integrity requires encouraging staff and organizations to learn from their mistakes rather than rely on blaming and punishing. However, in certain cases, ensuring compliance requires taking action against staff who violate the rules. There is a fine balance that needs to be struck between accountability and 'softer' learning processes.

However, even with the best enforcement mechanisms, rules can be broken. Therefore, not only material incentives but also abstract rewards should be used for establishing an ethical climate. This is consistent with the understanding that decision-making is not only rational but also driven by context and emotions, as explained in further detail in Integrity and Ethics Module 6 (Challenges to Ethical Living) and Module 8 (Behavioural Ethics). Therefore, while material incentives and sanctions are important, human behaviour is also influenced by more abstract rewards such as the feeling of belonging to the community or being seen as a valuable employee. Research shows that humans often put abstract rewards ahead of their biological needs (Eagleman, 2016, p. 114). This insight could guide strategies for strengthening ethical action in public organizations.

The essence of such abstract rewards is to publicly recognize the ethical, efficient and effective work of the public servant frequently and sometimes even immediately after appropriate performance. While there is little research on what rewards public servants value most, it can reasonably be assumed that the sense of accomplishment, recognition and ownership would be more important to a public servant than performance-related-pay. This has been confirmed by an OECD study which encourages the use of performance-related-pay but at the same time suggests that its effects should not be overestimated (OECD, 2007, p 5). Aside from recognition, public servants could also receive developmental rewards such as training, interesting/challenging assignments, and delegation of authority and responsibility. This motivates public servants to perform better and could encourage ethical conduct.

Organizations can also strengthen ethical awareness by promoting ongoing conversations about integrity, ethics and quality of work. Such conversations could help build public service motivation and prevent moral disengagement. They can create shared values, a safe environment and trust in organizations. Finally, organizations can establish an Ethics Office that can provide advice on ethical issues.

Against this background, public integrity management can be conceptualized as a process that uses rational, material, and emotional incentives to ensure ethical conduct of individuals and organizations. This process combines (external) rule-based incentives with (internal) value-based incentives that strengthen the motivation of staff to serve the goals of the organization. Both are necessary for public service integrity. The following paragraphs address possible approaches and instruments that can create a culture of integrity and promote ethical and rule-consistent behaviour of public servants and organizations.


Ethical codes and other integrity instruments

A key instrument for strengthening integrity in any public organization is the code of ethics or code of conduct. These codes are formulated to capture the ethos of public service domains and professions, and guide the behaviour of actors. Both international organizations and national governments formulate ethical codes for the public service. The UNCAC, for example, urges States to apply "codes or standards of conduct for the correct, honourable and proper performance of public functions". Given that the meaning of honourable and proper performance may sometimes be context-dependent, the formulation of public service codes differs from one State to the other. In addition, different codes adopted for different public service domains or types of stakeholder relations (e.g. Code of Good Governance or Code for Civil Servants) might reflect specific contextual values.

Like the professional codes discussed in Integrity and Ethics Module 14 (Professional Ethics), codes of conduct for the public service are in some cases concise and in other cases more elaborate, containing a long list of values and principles. Public servants are expected to internalize the code so that it becomes an internal ethical compass for their decisions. Examples of how values such as accountability, transparency and responsiveness have been incorporated into public sector codes can be found in the collection of ethical codes on the OECD website and in UNODC's Anti-Corruption Legal Library (the codes are categorized there as laws implementing UNCAC article 8 paragraph 3). As a model, the United Nations developed the International Code of Conduct for Public Officials contained in the annex to General Assembly resolution 51/59 of 12 December 1996. The UNCAC refers to this model code as a source of guidance for States seeking to develop ethical codes for their public sector.

As explained in Module 14, a code of ethics can be distinguished from a code of conduct on the basis that the former typically provides goals or aspirations for professionals to reach (and is sometimes called an aspirational code) while the latter provides sanctions for failure to meet code requirements (and is sometimes called a compliance-based code or a disciplinary code). Aspirations can be standards to meet or matters to avoid. They can be stated with different degrees of precision. They are not necessarily addressed to actual behaviour, and they can recommend that staff strives to have certain attitudes, character, and take certain points into consideration during a decision-making process.

Public service codes of ethics are put in place to strengthen values and intrinsic motivation of public servants. Because of their aspirational nature, not only the text but the process of creating and internalizing the code is also important. When staff members are involved in the process of designing the code (or other comparable rules) they become more aware of and emotionally committed to following the code. Communication, consensus building, co-creation, application discussions, induction and oath for new staff are additional instruments that can shape and strengthen the public service ethos. The very important 'tone from the top' as well as organizational rituals and on-going conversations about ethics at the workplace raise the awareness of public servants to ethical considerations and increase the chance that ethical issues and dilemmas are recognized as such, and not swept under the carpet by moral disengagement or automatic and technocratic responses. The resulting ethical climate creates positive peer and community pressure that increases the social rewards for acting ethically.

In addition to the aspirational value-based ethical codes, public organizations also use disciplinary compliance-based codes of conduct. These codes contain rules which public servants are obliged to comply with, and the formal sanctions for rule breaching. The disciplinary codes are meant as instruments for extrinsic motivation. A key difference between a rule-based instrument, such as a code of conduct, and a value-based code of ethics is that the former contains enforceable provisions. The need for such codes is emphasised in article 8 of UNCAC, which urges States to take "disciplinary or other measures against public officials who violate the codes or standards established in accordance with this article". It should be clarified, however, that in many cases the distinction between aspirational codes (of ethics) and disciplinary codes (of conduct) will not be so clear cut. Thus, for example, codes can be aspirational in part and also provide for sanctions in the case of serious misconduct. In these codes, only serious violations will entail sanctions.

Whether in the context of a code of conduct or another type of regulation, most public organizations adopt rules regarding conflicts of interest and post-employment restrictions. The issue of conflicts of interest is a fundamental problem in the context of ethical conduct in the public sector. A conflict of interest arises when public servants are in a position to personally benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity. For example, a public servant who must take a recruitment decision regarding a spouse, or a judge who has a financial relationship with one of the parties in a case, have a conflict of interest. In these situations, the public servant must disclose his or her conflict of interest, and recuse themselves from deciding on the matter. More examples of conflicts of interest can be found in this short article. Post-employment restrictions are meant to prevent conflicts of interest. For example, former public servants who worked in public procurement are prohibited from working for a company that was contracted by the organization for a certain period after leaving the public sector. Otherwise, there is a risk that the public servant would influence a public procurement decision that favours a company which he or she intends to work for in the future, and the company may be tempted to bribe the public servant by offering a lucrative job in return for a government contract. Further explanations about public service codes can be found in OECD (2009). It is noted that, in addition to codes of conduct, public servants are also guided by relevant laws and regulations pertaining to their work, including financial, health and safety aspects.

As noted previously, the tone from the top is one of the most important requirements for public integrity in any organization. It is highly unlikely that public servants at a ministry, hospital, or any other public organization will conduct themselves in an ethical manner if the leadership does not serve as an ethical role-model. This raises the question of whether ethical codes should apply to politicians (who head certain public organizations for a limited time during their term) and not only to public servants (who work at the organization permanently). Asset and interest declarations are often required of politicians but ethical codes are not always in place. A guide on ethical codes for parliament members can be found here

Another critical issue is that of enforcement and accountability for integrity breaches. After all, the problems mainly arise when the ethical values are not lived. While intrinsic motivation for ethical behavioural is important, the manner in which an organization handles reports of integrity breaches is also crucial for deterring and rectifying such breaches. In this context, reporting structures and protections are important, as are disciplinary regimes and control mechanisms such as internal audits and internal investigations. As discussed in further depth in Integrity and Ethics Module 7 (Strategies for Ethical Action), promoting a culture of integrity entails encouraging staff and organizations to learn from their mistakes rather than blaming and punishing. However, in certain cases, ensuring compliance requires taking action against staff who violate the rules. So there is a fine balance between accountability and 'softer' learning processes. 

Module 7 also discusses the importance of a safe environment for strengthening integrity in an organization. Part of this is supporting staff in dealing with dilemma situations and concerns. As noted earlier, public decisions must reflect all public values. In principle, the role of integrity management is to create decision-making processes that integrate reflections regarding the different values, and control mechanisms to check bias (Graaf-Huberts 2014). At the same time, there are dilemma situations in which public servants need to make difficult decisions. It is an important role of integrity management systems to create support for such decision making (including, for example, supporting potential whistleblowers before they decide to report formally). Safe organizational climate and ethical sensitivity of leaders and managers are key to ensure that dilemmas are discussed and concerns raised. Some organizations employ ethics counsellors or provide access to external legal counsel who can support individual decision-making or a structured process of dilemma discussion. Their role is to provide confidential advice in an effort to help individuals ascertain which course of action to take. Organizations can also facilitate discussions of recurring dilemma types in order to prepare staff for adequately responding in such situations.

Other key instruments for fostering an ethical culture in the organization are the requirement to take an oath, induction training, dilemma discussions, conversations about new rules, internal policy workshops, and continuing education. UNCAC article 7(1)(d), for example, encourages States to promote education and training programmes for public officials "to enable them to meet the requirements for the correct, honourable and proper performance of public functions". For strengthening and maintaining an ethical environment, it is important that staff members have a safe space and a structured process for discussing ethical issues, that they are encouraged to share diverse interpretations, listen to and understand others' arguments for applying certain values and rules, discuss potential consequences of decisions, feel included and heard, experience emerging consensus (or at least understanding the others' positions and concerns), and have a sense that more responsible decisions emerge at the end of the process. What might appear as an issue in this respect is the authority to carry out the training programmes, dilemma discussions and conversations. Training programmes may be a responsibility of the internal structures of the public organizations or there may be a separate, external entity responsible for training all public servants. In Lithuania, for example, most governmental ministries (Chlivickas, 2010, p. 4) have their own training centres and thus the public servants can continuously increase their knowledge and be reminded of the core values of the public service. Other States, in contrast, such as Denmark (Danish School of Public Administration), Czechia (Institute of State Administration), France (l'Institut de la gestion publique et du développement économique et le Centre des études européennes de Strasbourg), Germany (Federal Academy of Public Administration), Ireland (Institute of Public Administration in Ireland), Italy (Scuola Superiore Della Pubblica Amministrazione), have separate public institutions responsible for providing training to public servants. Regardless, the crucial point is that during the continuous trainings the public servants can not only deepen their knowledge but also discuss day-to-day challenges and obstacles which also lead to deviant and unethical conduct.



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