As Conflict of Interest Commissioner for the Province of Ontario, my concern is the ethical conduct of public servants. I have a specific role with respect to the chairs of designated agencies and some designated agency senior managers, for whom I am the ethics executive. I am also the ethics executive for many former public servants and for the Secretary of Cabinet. The ethics executive is responsible for ensuring compliance with rules for ethical conduct.
In Ontario, however, the system of public service ethics oversight is a shared responsibility. Agency chairs and senior managers are themselves ethics executives for their own organizations. Deputy ministers are ethics executives for their ministries. The Secretary of Cabinet is the ethics executive for deputy ministers. Our office provides advice to these other ethics executives when they need help dealing with ethics matters or have questions about the application of our rules. Sometimes I am asked to accept a referral of an ethics matter, but unless the matter has broad implications or the ethics executive is himself or herself conflicted, I prefer to support ethics executives in their critical role of ensuring ethical conduct in their own organizations. This approach is consistent with good governance and with executive accountability.
Generally speaking, our system seems to work, and the expectation that heads of organizations should deal with ethical issues and foster an ethical environment in their organizations is one of its strengths. Our statute, the Public Service of Ontario Act, 2006, gives ethics executives the responsibility for promoting ethical conduct by public servants who work in their organizations. This is a clear mandate for deputies, agency chairs, the Cabinet Secretary, and other ethics executives to pay attention to ethical issues and take them seriously.
Several recent expense scandals have involved elected officials, but they illustrate the importance of sound ethical leadership in any organization. Preston Manning recently wrote an excellent article regarding the situation in Alberta. He noted that casual ethics on the part of a premier can foster an ethically permissive culture in the entire government. Other news accounts revealed that attempts by conscientious public servants, and even the deputy premier, to warn the premier against improprieties were ignored or rebuffed. Those who expressed concern could find themselves unheeded, demoted or “canned”. This can sap public service morale, compromise the integrity and professionalism of public servants, and generally erode the ethics of organizational culture.
All of which speaks to the importance of leadership in fostering and maintaining a culture of ethics in organizations. Leaders, both in politics and in the public service, must have a good ethical compass. In politics, as Manning suggests, we should be concerned with the personal ethics and personal integrity of the leaders we choose. We seem to focus more on ideology, experience and “political correctness”. While these characteristics are obviously important, when we choose our leaders, elected or not, we should also pay attention to their ethical integrity.
Nothing can replace a good ethical compass in a political or public service leader. Often this just means using common sense, having sound ethical intuition or instinct, knowing when one’s comfort zone has been breached, and having a desire to “do the right thing” and to “lead by example”. Rules codify what have long been considered good ethical practices, but they do not replace sound ethical awareness and leadership at the top. Having a good ethical compass also means being open to advice about the ethical implications of one’s own actions or intentions, realizing that it is more difficult to judge oneself and to accept criticism and constraints than it is to judge others.