Do the Right Thing

In previous blogs I explained that conflicts of interest may sometimes occur as a fact of life in a complicated society and that people should develop their own ethical compass and know when to seek advice.  I discussed how leaders are responsible for their own and their organization’s ethical integrity and they should foster an ethical culture.

In this blog I am writing about something that supports most of what I havepreviously written, namely, that after decades of public service in a variety of roles, I am convinced that most people in government want to do the right thing simply because it is right.

I believe there is a heightened awareness of the importance of ethical conduct among public office holders and public servants, and an increasing sensitivity to, and declining tolerance for, ethical misdeeds.

In performance measurement we talk about sustained changes in awareness and behavior leading to more durable, long-term changes in conditions and attitudes. This is a good analogy. There has been an increased emphasis on ethical awareness and behavior over time.  This has become internalized as part of our culture, and has actually changed societal conditions and attitudes.

Even in private enterprise, where profit rules, companies are increasingly under pressure to become more transparent in their practices, to demonstrate the positive societal impact of their activities, to establish rigorous corporate ethics and to embrace community involvement. Many companies see this as contributing to their success.

From my perspective, this is all very good because society is and has been moving in the right direction.  Although there have been several recent high profile public sector ethical incidents, at all levels of government , one should pause to reflect that not so long  ago , such things might have gone unnoticed.

The greater frequency and public exposure of these incidents could well mean that we have become a more conscientious society as a whole.

The role of our office is to reinforce this natural impulse to do the right thing. There will always be those who do not wish to do the right thing, and they may never come to our office for advice or a determination.

But I am impressed with how often senior public servants have approached our office with questions or concerns simply because they wanted to ensure that they were moving in the right direction. In today’s society, that is what good public service is all about. We encourage and commend such behavior and, in return, we will always try to provide reasonable, consistent and constructive advice.

Recently, Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno wrote something that resonated with me: “Ethics is doing the right thing when people are watching; integrity is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.”

I interpret this to mean that regardless of codes of conduct and oversight bodies, those of us in the public service should always rely on our own personal integrity and instinctive sense of doing the right thing simply because it is right.

One thought on “Do the Right Thing

  • June 10, 2015 at 11:48 am

    Well said! I believe the huge majority of people in all kinds of organizations want to always do the right thing, and are upset when they think they have not, or feel forced into some less ethical practice by a manager or corporate culture. There is much more guidance now in ethical conduct, both in writing and with people like yourself who can speak to the issues, than when I was in public service. It’s wonderful that people can approach you for advice, either about their own potential actions or to clarify whether something they have witnessed was wrong conduct.

    I was in the Ontario Public Service for 21 years, in six ministries, and for the first 19 years never heard the word “ethics” used. By the time I served on a crown corporation board starting in 2004, ethics and conduct discussions were becoming the norm. And that’s a really good thing, since it makes people comfortable with the language of ethics and with practicing speaking up when they know what’s right.


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