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Enforcement & Disciplinary Issues

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The separation of public and private interests in the conduct of all public officials is a precondition for accountable and transparent government. The decisions and actions of an office holder should not be affected, or appear to be affected, by personal interests.  If they are, there is said to be a conflict of interests between public duties and personal interests.

In recognizing such conflicts, states have adopted a series of countermeasures ranging from laws, regulations and codes of conduct, to offices of public ethics to commissions and special courts. Asset declaration is one such measure whereby public officials (and sometimes members of the judiciary and the legislature), are required (periodically) to declare their personal economic situation for scrutiny by a state authority.  A number of countries, faced with corruption and public discontent with the performance of government, have adopted legislation on asset declarations. Other countries, in particular many western democracies, have done without asset declarations, relying instead on traditions of institutional ethics, efficient income tax systems and public access to information. A notable exception is the USA, which has an extensive system of financial disclosure for public officials and members of government.

Any system of asset declarations has as its primary objectives:

  • to avoid decisions being made – or the perception of being made – when the decision-maker has a personal interest in the outcome

  • To deter the acceptance of bribes or other illicit financial gains by officials and politicians by requiring them to explain their assets

It is widely recognized, however, that a system of asset declaration should not be the sole or principal deterrent against corruption. A declaratory system based on the cooperation and compliance of public servants is too easy to circumvent, and illicit gains will not be declared.

In order to prevent conflicts of interest, and also to signal public probity, governments often take a number of legal measures. Such measures affecting public officials can include:

  • prohibiting ownership of certain business interests

  • introducing administrative law restrictions on holding other jobs and accepting gifts

  • introducing administrative law requirement that officials must transfer decisions to someone else if there is a potential conflict, that elected officials must abstain from voting, and that judges must relinquish their seat when there is reasonable doubt on their capacity to make impartial decisions.

  • administrative or criminal law restrictions on the use of information for personal purposes

Declaration requirements are a means of reminding public servants of the rules and obligations they must follow in the course of fulfilling their official duties. The individual public servant has the primary responsibility to report a (potential) conflict of interest. Education and training systems support this process by informing public servants of what those rules are.  However, it is not always clear when such a conflict exists, nor is it always clear how the law should be applied. The official must be able to refer a matter to his or her superior, who, if in doubt, may rely on a central overseeing institution to resolve matters referred to its attention.   An independent and impartial third party, such as an ethics or personnel official, should be accessible for all staff members.

Recommended readings                                          

  • IPMA. 1998. "Summary Report." Twenty-third International Symposium on Public Personnel Management, April 26-30.
  • PSMPC. "Values in the Australian Public Service." Implementing Change Series No. 4.
  • Kernaghan, Kenneth, and John W. Langford. 1990. The Responsible Public Servant. Institute for Research on Public Policy, The Institute of Public Administration of Canada.

Suggested websites                                                  

State Services Commission. 1995. "New Zealand Public Service Code of Conduct." SSC, Wellington.

This page was authored by  Mike Stevens of the World Bank.  It was submitted on 5/4/00.




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