Interview : Peter De Roeck on Integrity in the Public Sector

IIAS Knowledge Portal: What is public sector integrity? What are the main values and norms associated with it? To what extent does context matter for public sector integrity?

Public administration integrity policy can be defined as the will to promote a way of action contributing to guarantee respect and preservation of fundamental values from a societal point of view, such as equality of treatment, or non-discrimination. Public service has to be perceived as the sanctuary of equity values while ensuring its agents are exercising their mission with professionalism, transparency and the efficiency needed.

Values associated to Public Service integrity are given in the deontological framework of the public administration (Cadre déontologique de la fonction publique) of 17 August 2007:

  • Respect: servants must take care of their intern and extern relations.
  • Impartiality: in order to provide good public service, servants must insure equal treatment of users.
  • Professional conscientiousness: servants meticulously tackle the decisional process as well as the management of their resources.
  • Loyalty: servants are loyal to democratic institutions, to the applicable rules and to the good application of policies.

They are therefore values common to the Belgian public administration and every organization can then use by translating and adapting them to their specific missions.

In addition to the call to values which lead to a “stimulating” approach of integrity, norms constitute the “controlling” aspect of the integrity policy.

We can quote here the Belgian Public administration’s servant Statute (Statut des agents de la fonction publique belge) of the Royal decree 2 October 1937 (Part II), regulations on public procurement, on conflict of interest, or more recently, on denunciation of integrity violations.

Public service mission fit into a service provided to citizen’s context (but we may speak about contexts, as there is a plurality of missions). The evolution of the Citizen expectations who became “customers” (and sometimes “consumers” of services and products sourced by the administration) and with whom interaction increased led to adapt the organization missions as well as partners competences.

Context, and culture, which prevail within the organization, as the nature of the mission, work organization (e.g.: the ‘new way of working’ implying a wider autonomy of the servants) or the role of the hierarchy (e.g.: exemplariness of the management) are also constituent elements of the approach regarding integrity.

KP: What is the relation between integrity and corruption?

Corruption is obviously a serious integrity violation.

It is important to underline that some facts which seems insignificant, as office supplies disappearing or other constitute also integrity violation.

These facts cannot remain ignored as they give a signal of impunity to the one making them and who could be tempted to make more serious ones.

Setting a harsh policy, as for e.g. regarding gifts, gives a referential frame to partners, especially those having functions where there is a higher risk of integrity violation (e.g.: control authorities, grant of license, grant of subsidy, etc.).

Exemplarity of hierarchy, “tone at the top”, is an important element for anchoring integrity policy in the organization.

KP: What factors do support or hinder integrity in the public sector?

A lot of (f)actors improve integrity in public administration, besides the obligation to answer to recommendations or regulations coming from international organizations.

We can quote the “policy agenda” which plays a determining role by giving priority to integrity policy and by providing means to promote this integrity policy within the public administration.

Besides political will, there is the management will of the public organization to put emphasis on the importance of integrity in the organization by acting in a transparent way (e.g. regarding how promotions are accorded) and by giving the example (good expense management, etc.).

An integrity policy can also be managed by an organization, by a “responsive” way, after a corruption problem revealed by medias and which damaged its renown.

In order to foster integrity in a public administration context, it is important to ensure coherence between values and actions and to these aspects in particular:

  • Are the organization’s values and norms in synch with the reality of the needs and the expectations of the Citizen to whom the servant must provide an answer? In some case, can a rift be produced at this level that may create a double obligation and lead to a conflict of values?
  • Are the values extoled regarding “client orientation” heard within the organization – in other words – Can the “client orientation” culture be translated into the need to answer to the expectations of the organization’s internal clients, it means its partners?

By contrast, a “cosmetic” integrity policy limited to printing a Charter of Values on coated paper or to hammer home a slogan, but without ending in concrete daily action, will not unite partners and will go unheeded.

Resistance to change could also be one of the blocking issues for setting an integrity policy: the fear, as for every change, to be asked to go outside a comfort zone or also to see some advantages granted by ourselves tacitly disappears.

KP: Why is integrity so important for good public governance? What are the consequences of a lack of integrity?

Integrity is part of the “dignity of the function” concept of the public agent specifically mentioned in the Belgian State’s servant Statute (Statut de l’Agent de l’Etat belge). Dignity of the function is natural consequence coming from the fact an agent hold a tiny part of the public power and is in charge to enforce the law.

Moreover, the Citizen is very solicitous to know how public funds to which he contributes are used and want them to be astutely used. This worry is even more important in an austerity context when citizens are asked to make efforts.

It is therefore essential that the Citizen is reassured concerning the administration capacity to make every effort for the good management of State funds and to offer him a service matching these expectations.

Lack of integrity will result in the erosion of the Citizen’s trust which would be harmful not only for the reputation of the public organization in question, but it could also rain down upon the whole public sector as well, due to the possible conflation made by citizens. Once the trust tie with the Citizen has been damaged, it is difficult to fix it.

KP: How to improve integrity in the public sector? Which instruments (codes, training etc.), policies (prevention, supervision etc.) and strategies (macro, micro etc.) are necessary to fight against corruption and safeguard integrity?

In order to improve integrity in the public sector, the beforehand preventive approach seems to be the most suitable as it enables to set off reflections and/or to enable the public agent to call himself into question.

If we agree on this, we still need to define the most efficient way to raise awareness among/to train partners on the risk of integrity violations and their harmful consequences.

The deontological frame of August 2007 constitutes an awareness tool for the whole Belgian public administration.

However, it can be necessary to develop a specific code for some organization or functions. To this end, the organization endeavors to establish a mapping of high-risky functions and sets a specific awareness approach for these high-risky functions groups.

Concrete measures can be set as for e.g. setting a rotation system for servants owning high-risky functions and awareness to conflict of interest and the withdrawal process.

In term of recruitment, adopting selection process based on objective criterion regarding competence assessment and expertise is required.

KP: Could you provide us with brief examples of integrity-fostering measures set up in the Belgian federal administration?

We chose two examples of measures contributing to greater integrity, on the one hand for actors outside the organization (citizens) and, on the other hand, for inside actors (partners of federal organizations).

  • The implementation of a harmonized grievance management system within the Belgian federal administration. This system answering to precise criterion (specific logo, admissibility criterion for the grievance, response time …) enables citizens to introduce grievance before the federal organization according to a standardized process when they feel, for e.g., that this organization has perpetrated a mistake in their case’s treatment.

Citizens can showcase their problem to the federal Mediator (le Médiateur fédéral) if they are not satisfied by the answer given by the organization in question. If the complaint is justified, the federal Mediator will try to convince the administration to correct the situation and to avoid this problem again in the future.

Organizations gather and report the received grievance, enabling then to detect the recurrence of some problems and to adopt corrective measures.

  • Denouncing suspected integrity violation within a federal administrative authority by a member of its own staff Act, 15 September 2013 (loi du 15 septembre 2013 relative à la dénonciation d’une atteinte suspectée à l’intégrité au sein d’une autorité administrative fédérale par un membre de son personnel (loi whistleblowing)). This act allows federal civil servants to anonymously denounce a suspected integrity violation and to enjoy a minimum two-year protection from potential retaliation measures. This protection is provided by the federal Mediator. This package provides for the whistleblower can file his complaint before a “composante interne” (the trusted integrity person named within every federal organization) or before the “composante externe” (the federal Mediator). It is up to the federal Mediator to lead the investigation on the suspected integrity violation.

It appeared to us interesting to provide with examples where the federal Mediator intervene, an independent organ which constitutes a guaranty of impartiality and of transparency in the procedures. Moreover, the federal Mediator presents a report to the Representative Chamber (Chambre des Représentants). This report includes recommendations the federal Mediator thinks to be useful and explain the potential problems he encountered while exercising his mission.

Peter De Roeck works at the Ethics and Administrative Deontology Office of the Federal Public Service on Budget and Management Control