An Ethical Compass

Welcome to my first blog. This forum is new for me. Not long ago, if a person wanted to add their voice to a matter of public discourse the only way to do so was to write (and publish) a letter to the editor of a  newspaper. I’ve done that from time-to-time over the years. However, today I am looking forward to engaging with you through this periodic blog. I intend to share my thoughts on ethical issues that are, or should be, of interest and concern to all of us as public servants and encourage you to submit your comments and feedback as well. Also, please feel free to share these posts with others in your organization or network who you think might be interested.

The subject of ethics, and conflicts of interest more specifically, are certainly in the public consciousness these days. Hardly a day goes by without a news item (or several) about questionable conduct by an employee or senior official of a public or private organization. As a result, enquiries have been made about the systems that are in place to deal with these matters and whether or not they are adequate.

I’ve come to realize two truths about conflict of interest. The first is that it is often easier to recognize conflict of interest in others than in ourselves. Second, conflicts of interest cover a wide range of conduct – from conduct that is quite minimal to that which is very serious, possibly even criminal.

The reality is that conflict of interest is a fact of life in a complicated society. An active individual, who wishes to contribute to society through public service beyond the professional realm, may be involved with multiple bodies and organizations in his or her community.  This kind of involvement produces better citizens and better public servants but, conflicts may arise quite casually and innocently.  There may not be any so-called ‘wrongdoing’ involved and certainly not any criminal conduct.

What is important is for each of us to find and nurture our own personal ethical compass. It may be easier to see conflicts in others than in ourselves, but public servants who become aware of potential conflict situations should immediately disclose them to their ethics executive so that proper action can be taken to manage and avoid a real or more serious conflict.  The fact is, public servants will be reluctant to consult their ethics executive, and certainly our office, if they fear that raising even the most trivial of conflicts will become exaggerated and possibly even magnified by the process.  That’s why we believe it is important for our office to establish relationships and build trust and confidence among public servants.

Our office may be seen as an ally for public servants that provides an organizational ethical compass. We act as a resource by providing guidance and direction to resolve questionable situations. This approach minimizes reputational and integrity risks and enables public servants to do their jobs ethically and conscientiously. Obviously, serious ethical misconduct, or conduct that approaches criminality, needs to be dealt with firmly, and in such cases, we ensure that the proper authorities are involved so that appropriate action can be taken.

Sidney B. Linden is a former Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice and Ontario’s first full-time Conflict of Interest Commissioner.

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