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Are our efforts controlling corruption or creating an ethics industry?

By Sharon Hayes - posted Friday, 27 February 2004

Addressing corruption has become a high priority in Australia, with both state and federal governments introducing a range of legislated strategies aimed at prevention. Corruption control programs in Australia have received hundreds of millions in funding over the last two decades but no comprehensive empirical evaluation of its efficacy has been attempted.

Research conducted elsewhere indicates that corruption prevention programs have not been successful in reducing corruption, and a quick survey of the local literature indicates that there is no evidence to suggest that outcomes in Australia have been any better.

Over the past ten years or so, building on increased public awareness and exposure of government corruption both in Australia and overseas, corruption risks have become widely recognised worldwide as a serious problem. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations (UN), as well as governments in the United Kingdom and the United States, for example, have carried out risk assessments and implemented ethics programs, codes of conduct, and other official guidelines for preventing public officials and government entities from participating in corrupt or fraudulent practices. Legislation of public-sector ethics and codes has been passed in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and many other countries in an attempt to address what is seen as a significant problem.


What remains to be seen, however, is whether the legislation and programs actually do what they set out to do. Considerable empirical research on corruption has been carried out overseas and in Australia, but most of this research concerns cross-country comparisons based on subjective evaluations of corruption levels carried out by such organisations as Transparency International and the OECD. Within Australia, evaluations have been conducted by bodies such as the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC), the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) and the Key Centre for Ethics Law Justice and Government (KCELJAG) in Queensland, but typically these have consisted of surveys of government employee’s attitudes about corruption.

On the whole these evaluations have done little to demonstrate whether prevention programs are cost effective, or whether they directly influence the incidence of fraud and corruption. Indeed, the more one reads the corruption research in Australia, the more it seems to indicate that, far from reducing corruption, current programs are more concerned with encouraging the rapid development of an ethics industry that is fast becoming both self-determining and self-perpetuating. Considerations of efficacy are part of the rhetoric of public-sector ethics but there is little evidence of it in either the academic or government literature.

Such charges have already been laid against other governments in recent times. For example, United States legal academics Peter Morgan and Glenn Reynolds in their research into the implementation of ethics in United States government over the past three decades, conclude that such a self-perpetuating “ethics establishment” has already taken hold in the United States, giving rise to a culture of “appearance ethics” that focuses on the simple manipulation of appearances rather than on substantive ethical analyses of current practices. They conclude even further that appearance ethics is pernicious because it “gives the illusion of control and precision” based on ever more constricting rules and regulations that offer simplicity at the expense of substance.

This is not to say that all such efforts are disingenuous. Indeed, ethics practitioners and academics of the “establishment” are deadly serious in the drive to “combat” corruption in the public sector and beyond. They perceive the public sector as a battlefield and their duty as generals to direct the troops on the path of righteousness. From this perspective, everyone is a potential offender, and targets must therefore be hardened against possible illicit use. ICAC, for example, in a review of current research on corruption, conclude that such “lessons” should form the basis of a good corruption prevention strategy:

Lesson 1: View all people as potential offenders (ICAC, 1998: 3)

On this view, all employees are capable of – in fact, have a disposition towards – committing corrupt acts when put into a position to do so. No one can be trusted, not even the CEO, and especially not the labourer or anyone else in between. However, this view of human nature seems plain wrong. Both the psychological and the philosophical literature abound in treatises on human nature that contradict this egoist view of individuals. Contemporary theorists as diverse as John Rawls and Michel Foucault have discredited such Hobbesian views of human nature, claiming that individuals not only have the capacity to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, but also have (and display) a disposition to do so. Immanual Kant, it seems, was right when he argued that any rational individual will acknowledge the legitimacy of a moral law based on a kind of universal “golden rule” where putting oneself in others’ shoes is the best rule of thumb for making ethical choices. Looking back even further we have such eminent philosophers as John Stuart Mill, Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, even Plato and Aristotle – though they agreed on little else – expounding the remarkable capacity of humans to act with virtue, courage and wisdom.


That over 2000 years worth of debate can be so easily tossed aside by contemporary “ethicists” is not only amazing, but would be deeply worrying, if it were not for the internal contradictions displayed in contemporary public-sector ethics.

Both the CMC and the ICAC positions on corruption prevention, for example, recommend extensive attention be paid to organisational culture and the internal influences of leadership in setting the ethical example and establishing a culture of trust and responsibility. That this goal is in direct conflict with “Lesson 1” is not debated or even acknowledged. One can only assume that this is because the ethics establishment is indeed more concerned with the appearance of propriety, rather than with substantive ethical questions. Human nature is a complex thing, as is ethical theory of the Aristotelian or Kantian sort. Contemporary ethicists have to date refused to address such theoretical concerns in their drive to establish more laws, codes and sanctions. From their perspective it seems that more is better, helping to fuel public indignation against corrupt officials and thus reinforcing the rationale of the ethics establishment.

Current strategies also tend to take away individual responsibility for behaving ethically and make employees dependent on external mechanisms of control to regulate their behaviour. Codes of conduct are useful tools in providing employees with information on the rules and regulations of their particular organisation but they cannot replace individual integrity as a regulator of behaviour. In our society most individuals are socialised into the golden rule ethic from an early age. Thus, not only are there laws to prevent us from stealing, lying under oath, or running a red light, we have been brought up to heed these laws even when no-one is looking.

The strength of a legal system lies not in its panoptic effect, but in its ability to provide the ground rules for internalising good behaviour. Organisations such as the CMC that use the panoptic model to police its employees – the constant monitoring from an unseen place so that employees never know when or if they are being watched and thus have to be on their best behaviour at all times – only serves to make employees distrustful both of management and of each other. It takes away individual responsibility for acting ethically – indeed, it assumes that people will not act ethically unless forced to do so. The fear of having just one person act unethically has resulted in an overburdening system of electronic ID tags, secret cameras, electronic surveillance devices and human supervision. The resultant decrease or absence of corruption and fraud, however, has not occurred – during its lifetime the CMC has had as many corruption cases as your average government agency. This suggests that a similar result would have been achieved without the attendant surveillance infrastructure and its enormous costs.

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About the Author

Dr Sharon Hayes is a lecturer in the School of Justice Studies at QUT. She is a foundational Fellow of the International Institute for Public Ethics, the Ethics and Justice Society, and the Corruption Prevention Network Queensland. and has been recently appointed to the new Legal Practice Tribunal in Queensland.

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