Introduction

Public servants are assigned authority to implement laws and public policies, govern state assets and provide services to the public. The abuse of this entrusted power to further private interests is the very definition of corruption. Building a culture of integrity in the public sector can be challenging as the unique combination of state authority and large discretionary power means that opportunities and incentives for large illicit gains can be plentiful. Officials must learn to appropriately manage competing loyalties to the state, the current government, their institution and their public duties, all of which can overlap or contradict their own private interests. 

Public sector ethics is an expansive term, covering both elected and unelected public officials as well as civil servants from the highest circles of state power to the lowliest administrators. The corruption challenges these groups face can vary enormously. While junior unelected public officials are more prone to solicit petty bribes during interactions with the public, senior civil servants and elected ministers are more likely to engage in so-called "grand corruption" scams, in which the abuse of public resources and ultimately state capture are real risks. 

Moreover, issues around public sector ethics are not limited to time spent as a public employee: it is increasingly recognised that more needs to be done to prevent both the undue influence over political decision making and the unfair commercial advantage caused by the so-called revolving door. 

Measures to promote integrity in the public sector are heavily contingent on a country's legal and institutional set-up and are dependent on the nature of the corruption challenge itself. Generally, a combination of robust punitive measures with a regulatory regime of rules, guidance and enforcement is an effective means of curbing unethical practices in public office. Regulation addressing corruption challenges in the public sector frequently covers the following core integrity mechanisms:

  •  ethics codes
  • conflict of interest policies
  • assets declaration regimes

For further information, see our Topic Guide on Public Sector Integrity.

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