Integrity: The Cornerstone of Good Governance

By Thomas Scapin

After an overview about the OECD Trust Strategy in our previous article, we are now delighted to present you this brief account regarding public sector integrity and why it is a cornerstone of good governance.

Trust is crucial for the legitimacy and sustainability of democratic political systems. It depends on the “positive perception” by citizens of government doing what is right and fair, i.e. acting in a responsible way and seeking the public interest (OECD, 2013(a):21).

Indeed surveys show that the perception of corruption is “the most influential driver of trust in government” (OECD, 2013(b):5) and therefore integrity is seen as a major foundation of public trust.

However, there is often a lot of confusion about this key concept and it is worth trying to figure out more precisely what integrity in the public sector stands for and what is required to improve it.

According to the specialist Prof. Leo Huberts, despite many different views, the integrity of governance may be defined as “the quality of acting in accordance or harmony with relevant moral values, norms and rules” (Huberts, 2014:44-45).

It refers to the actual behavior of actors involved in decision making and implementation processes but deals strictly with their “moral dimension”, i.e. what is considered right and wrong, good or bad (the “ethics” of governance for Huberts).

Those moral values and norms are context-related but it is nonetheless important to underline that concerning the public sector in democracy, they generally draw on the idea of public servants acting in the public interest.

The OECD’s definition of integrity highlights this point by stating that it encompasses “the alignment of government and public institutions with broader principles and standards of conduct that contribute to safeguarding the public interest while preventing corruption” (OECD, 2013(a):29).

Therefore the emphasis on integrity has a twofold interest at least. On the one hand, it points out to both the processes (the “how”) and the final results (the “what”) of policy- and decision-making (OECD, 2014:4). It broadens the scope of public services quality by taking into account the ways they are designed and delivered instead of focusing only on their efficiency and effectiveness.

On the other hand, integrity turns out to be more positive and demanding than corruption which is characterized by “the misuse of public office, roles or resources, for private benefits (material or otherwise)” (OECD, 1996:13).

It is indeed the whole credibility of actors involved that matters and integrity thus goes beyond the prevention of integrity violations to “fostering high standards of behaviour” (OECD, 2013(a):34).

For that purpose, Prof. Jeroen Maesschalck in close collaboration with M. Janos Bertok of the OECD Secretariat devised for example an “Integrity Framework” (2009) which provides a systemic pattern of integrity management in public sector organizations.

This framework relies on a “flexible balancing” (Maesschalck & Bertok, 2009:7) of rules-based and values-based approaches and pays also attention to the impact of the inner and outer contexts on an organization level of integrity (Maesschalck & Bertok, 2009:8).

To conclude, integrity can be considered a cornerstone of good public governance insofar as it shed light on the substantial content and high requirements necessary for quality and legitimate public services.


Huberts Leo W.J.C. (Ed.), The Integrity of Governance. What it is, What we know, What is done, and Where to go, Palgrave MacMillan, IIAS Series: Governance and Public Management, 2014.

OECD, Ethics in the Public Service. Current Issues and Practice, Paris, OECD Publishing, Public Management Occasional Papers, n°14, 1996.

Maesschalck Jeroen & Bertok Janos, Towards a Sound Integrity Framework: Instruments, Processes, Structures and Conditions for Implementation, prepared for the Global Forum on Public Governance and the 39th session of the Public Governance Committee, OECD, Paris, 23 April 2009, GOV/PGC/GF(2009)1.

OECD, Government at a Glance 2013, Paris, OECD Publishing, 2013(a).

OECD, Investing in Trust, Leveraging Institutions for Inclusive Policy Making, Background Paper for the 47th Session of the Public Governance Committee, 11 April 2013(b), GOV/PGC(2013)2.

OECD, Towards an OECD Strategy on Trust in Government, Meeting of the Public Sector Integrity Network, Paris, 16-17 June 2014, GOV/PGC/ETH(2014)8.

Scapin (2)Thomas Scapin is a PhD student at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon (France) and he is currently doing an internship at IIAS in Brussels. His main research interests are public service ethics and public administration reforms.