Interview: Leo Huberts 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?

The main challenge in defining integrity is to find a definition that is not too specific (for example only on anti-corruption), nor too broad (including everything that goes wrong in governance). I see integrity as “a characteristic or a quality that refers to accordance with the relevant moral values and norms”. It concerns behaviour (of individuals, groups, organisations), whether what we do is in harmony with these moral values and norms. Thus integrity is not about what is beautiful (aesthetic), conventional (etiquette) or what works (technology): it focuses on “moral values and norms”. On what is right or wrong, on good and bad, on what is seen and shared as essential for the involvement and actions of (public) actors. Integrity is therefore ‘the thing to have’.

Integrity thus concerns the moral values and norms that seriously matters to a community, it is about the moral quality of governance. This makes it a central element in our reflection about good governance, on the qualities that matter in governance. In research on good governance, a huge number of relevant values are present which makes research in this field highly complex; also because there can be contradictions between these values which makes it hard to translate them into a framework for adequate, optimized behaviour.

Among the central values of governance, looking at the literature on governance and integrity violations are:

  • Democracy with responsiveness and participation
  • Accountability and transparency
  • Lawfulness
  • Incorruptibility and impartiality
  • Effectiveness and efficiency of process
  • Professionalism and civility
  • Robustness.

The question of the relevance of ‘context’ also leads to the broader questions of how we should interpret values and how they are related to each other. An interesting debate on that topic is on the PA agenda, with reflection on ‘value relativism’, ‘value pluralism’ and ‘value universalism’. Do public values fully depend on the context, or are there values which we all share on governance (universalism)? And in addition, can governance live up to taking into account all relevant public values or are the values always in conflict or even incommensurable (value pluralism)? My own position is a bit an in between one. Of course context matters, of course what is ‘good governance’ depends on the context, but I would argue as well that there are a number values on governance that are widely shared. Incorruptibility of politicians and public servants, for example, seems to be cherished as value by a New York yuppie as well as a poor Indian farmer… The contexts will lead to different practices, but that does not mean that their values differ on this aspect. The yuppie and farmer might in their ‘context’ vote for a corrupt politician because values as effectiveness (he/she gets things done) or responsiveness (I know him/her), but that does not mean that they ‘value’ corruption…

KP: What is the relation between integrity and corruption?

Corruption is, of course, an integrity violation, with many definitions and interpretations. My definition of corruption would be ‘Misuse of power/authority for private gain (incl. for family, friends, party)’, which contradicts public values as incorruptibility, impartiality, lawfulness as well as accountability and transparency.

Corruption is not the only integrity violation, but it is the most known and studied so far. Also because corruption is often interpreted rather broad, almost identical to ‘bad governance’, with all possible integrity violations included. I do not favour that very broad interpretation.

I think we should be more precise in our concepts on integrity (and corruption). Also because the different types of integrity violations request nuanced analysis on their causes and possible policies to address them.

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

Determining factors influencing integrity in the public sector concern many levels (macro, meso and micro) as well as different characteristics/aspects (motives and interests, values and culture, rules and codes, policies, context). They are interconnected, and there is a deep need for new research on this interconnection between these different levels. I therefore favour a ‘multi-approach’ on this, acknowledging the relevance of many factors to understand and explain (lack of) integrity.

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

Actually, when we observe the consequences of corruption and other integrity violations, we can be sure that a lack of integrity in governance practice, or bad governance, is related to devastating consequence for governance and society.

Lack of integrity can amount to serious harm for individuals, group and societies. As for e.g., it has been demonstrated by Transparency International that the economic cost of bribes paid worldwide per year is UD$1 trillion. Another study (Hanf, Van-Melle, Fraisse, Roger and Carme) estimated that corruption could be the indirect cause for 1.6% of children deaths in the world.

That makes integrity of governance a central point, which has to be at the core of future policies and research.

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?

These two questions are essential.

To achieve integrity and protect it, there are different strategies and theories, but they still need deeper research. My idea for now consists of a number of elements.

It seems important to give a key place to integrity on the agenda, by paying attention and developing policies which will have to be efficiently implemented then.

Leadership need to be highly involved in the integrity system as, even if integrity concerns all member of an organisation, it may have an influence on other member consciousness, and also because it is who is placing integrity on the agenda.

There should be also independent agencies and actors focusing on integrity and corruption problems, as independence give them the possibility to contribute to the improvement of the system at all levels, and also gives credibility to their work.

It is also necessary to apply different strategies, consider compliance as well as value-based initiatives; indeed, it helps out to find the good balance between them, and integrity shall also be applicable to all officials at every level, otherwise it will lose credibility.

There is also a constant need for evaluating and reconsider the effectiveness of integrity protection and anti-corruption strategies. What do codes, training, sanctions etc. actually achieve?

KP: What are the main challenges facing the research on public sector integrity?

More attention to ethics and integrity seems important by the current state of multidisciplinary governance studies: scholars who do take this facet into consideration are working in niches in the field, while the mainstream tends to successfully ignore it. That lack of attention is unfortunate and limits in my view our understanding of the phenomena under consideration. We should include values, ethics, integrity in our attempts to describe, understand and explain governance, it is time, therefore, for an “integrity turn” in governance studies.

In addition, there is an agenda for nowadays ethics and integrity scholars. We should relate our work more explicitly to mainstream governance studies. Integrity and ethics research involves much more than being normative missionaries on one topic. We are failing to simultaneously relate our work successfully to mainstream questions and topics, which presupposes that we should become more conscious about the partiality and relativity of the significance of our issues. That is, even though moral values and norms, and integrity and ethics, are crucial to understanding politics and administration, there are other important things. It should, therefore, also be our mission to relate the significance of our topics to power and power politics, to organization and management logics, and to other logics and rationalities of governance. In sum, we should aim for an empirical turn in the ethics and integrity of governance research, one that clarifies the empirical importance, or lack of importance, of moral values and norms for governance.

In addition, considering the actual state of research and what has been said here, there are several fields in which ethics and integrity researchers might contribute to progress in research and policies. These are related to the sketched factors on what seems to help:

  • What puts integrity and anticorruption issues high on the agenda?
  • What leadership at every level has real impact on unethical behaviours.
  • Which institutions, strategies and policies to promote integrity and anticorruption actually work?

Leo_Huberts_web_tcm31-35623L.W.J.C. (Leo) Huberts (1953) studied Political Science at Nijmegen University, did his PhD at Leiden University on the Influence of Protest and Pressure on Government Policy (finished in 1988), and joined the department of Political Science and Public Administration at VU University Amsterdam in 1990 as assistant professor in public administration. He was appointed as professor in Police Studies and Criminal Justice (sponsored chair) in 1997, as full professor in the Integrity of Governance in 2004 (strategic chair) and as full professor in Public Administration in 2007. He founded and leads the departmental research group Quality of Governance and is portfolio holder for research (and vice-dean) of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Huberts’ main areas of research concern systems of governance and power, and the quality, integrity and ethics of governance. Huberts is also involved in the Study Group on Quality and Integrity of Governance of the European Group for Public Administration and is since 2012 founder and co-chair of the Study Group on Quality of Governance of the International Institute of Administrative Sciences (IIAS).