Ethics and Accountability in Public Service

Ethics, Integrity and Accountability in Public Sector: Practice and Lessons Learned in Latvia Aleksejs Loskutovs, Director Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau Latvia 28 September 2006 (10 min.
) The public sector in Latvia has undergone many important changes over the past decade. In mid 1990s Latvian government started a major public administration reform. This reform was one of the cornerstones on Latvia’s way to the European Union, which we joined in May 2004. Latvia made a great effort to develop legal framework that regulates the public sector, as well as relations between the public sector and the citizens.Today legislation in Latvia and internal regulations of different public institutions in various ways cover the principles of ethics, integrity and accountably. Formally, the reform created a basis for a modern public sector, based on general European and international standards. The competence of public institutions is clearly limited in the law, each institution has to have objectives and is judged by its results, there are mechanisms to inform the public and involve the citizens.
The administration and the politics are separated.Civil servants have to be politically neutral. According to our public administration reform concept developed in 1995, public servants also have to respect the principle of ethics – it is defined in this concept as public interest standing beyond any personal interest. Many positive initiatives have been developed to ensure the accountability of the public sector. The parliament has an important role to control the work of the government and through it – the public sector as a whole. In fact, the parliament in Latvia is not using these powers enough.Public institutions have to develop work plans and through public consultative bodies the public and professionals can participate in the decision of public institutions.

Annual reports have become obligatory. Latvia is also one of the rare countries in the world were the meetings of the Cabinet of Ministers are open to the public. It is all a big change if we think that not so long ago, before the break-up of the Soviet Union such words as “public institutions”, “state”, “public interest” had a completely different meaning.Public administration and the political decision-making were closely linked. Public officials exercised wide discretion and made decisions in secrecy. Civil servants, party leaders, doctors could take gifts and help their friends and relatives – it was accepted as common practice. Therefore, the reform of public institutions has a much bigger challenge to face.
Changing the formal structures and rules was not enough. The mentality and tradition needed to change too. The laws need to be understood and applied in practice.Public servants need proper guidance and education to understand what behaviour is actually expected from them. Finally, there should be sanctions and efficient control mechanisms to ensure that those who do not respect the law are punished. As it was also pointed out in the study on the national integrity system in Latvia carried out in 2003 by Transparency International Latvia, the development of legislation is way ahead of the capacity of the public service to implement these norms and control the implementation.Given these circumstances, it was decided to address the concerns of ethics and integrity in the public service in Latvia through prevention of corruption and conflict of interest.
The National Strategy and Programme for Corruption Prevention and Combating in 2004-2008 were adopted by the Latvian government in 2004. These two documents form the national anti-corruption policy of Latvia. This policy has a comprehensive approach to the fight against corruption based on three pillars: prevention of corruption, investigation and education of the public.One of the aims of the programme is to ensure ethical behaviour of public officials and seek that they perform their duties in public, not in private interest. In the area of prevention of corruption in public institutions the Programme foresees five priorities: central role of heads of state and municipal institutions in preventing conflict of interest within their institutions; development and application of codes of ethics; clear and strict recruitment criteria in the public service; possibility to appeal against administrative decisions and – reporting about activities of public institutions.To ensure that this policy and relevant legislation are actually implemented it was decided to establish a single, specialised anti-corruption body – the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau. It was created by law in 2002.
The Bureau is fully operational since February 2003. It is an independent institution of public administration with investigatory powers. According to the national anti-corruption policy the Bureau has a wide set of tasks starting with prevention of corruption through control of activities of public officials and financing of political parties, and education of the ublic to investigation of criminal offences of corruption in the public sector. Despite it is a new institution, the Bureau was recognised in 2005 as one of the most trusted institutions in Latvia. Further to this, Latvia has adopted the law on Prevention of Conflict of Interest in Activities of Public Officials. The purpose of this law is to promote the integrity of public officials, as well as transparency and accountability of the public service. The law provides for restrictions and incompatibilities in situations of combing public duties with other jobs, commercial activities, accepting gifts, etc.
These rules apply to all public officials from the president to an ordinary civil servant. Over the past three years our Bureau has gained quite unique experience as it is responsible for enforcing this law and other restrictions to activities of public officials, as well as educating public officials on conflict of interest, respect of law and ethics. I will now briefly describe to you how our Bureau works in the area of preventing conflict of interest. Our Report Centre receives requests for advice or complaints about alleged crimes or violations committed by public officials.There is increasing number of complaints about conflict of interest – we received 712 in 2005 compared to 570 in 2004 and 495 in 2004. Important source of information is also other institutions and mass media. If the information is pursuable, an administrative investigation is started.
The Bureau can determine the administrative liability and impose sanctions on public officials, including ask to return to the state budget illegally gained income. Our Division of Control of Activities of Public Officials last year prepared 474 answers to different reports and completed 231 administrative investigations.In the course of these investigations, the Bureau checked 522 asset declarations of public officials. In 2005, 109 state officials have been charged with administrative liability for failure to observe the restrictions provided in this Law. Most common cases of violations are when public officials take decisions about themselves or close relatives, for instance, grant a bonus to them, employ a relative, supervise some matters in which they are personally interested, etc.To promote better understanding of what is ethical behaviour and how to avoid acting in a conflict of interest situation, the Bureau is providing regular training. We reached out to about 800 officials last year.
Codes of ethics is another practical instrument to set standards of ethics and promote ethical behaviour among public servants. As I just mentioned, it is one of priorities in our national anticorruption policy. Over the past few years most of public institutions at state level have developed codes of ethics in Latvia. Some municipal institutions have done it too. 105 state nstitutions have today their codes or declarations of ethics and several other state institutions prepare such codes or have integrated them into internal regulations. Comparatively only 7 municipalities have developed such codes. Even if some of these codes do not have a strong enforcement mechanism, the fact itself that institutions had to develop such codes was a good way to make them to think about these issues.
Two years after our work on enforcement of conflict of interest law, a survey carried out in 2005 show that the awareness has increased that conflict of interest can lead to corruption.In another more recent opinion survey of public officials conducted this summer 75% of the respondents acknowledged that the respect of ethical norms is important for the public service. The same survey revealed that 63% of the respondents consider that among the most important reasons that lead to corruption in the public sector is the lack of respect of ethical norms. What are the main lessons learned from the experience of our Bureau in the area of preventing corruption and conflict of interest? Conflict of interest regulation is an efficient instrument to promote ethics.Through our preventive work, the awareness of public servants about ethics and restrictions provided in the law has significantly increased. Overall, the administrative corruption is decreasing. Also the public trust is increasing in the Bureau and in such indirect way also in the integrity of public service.
This is, for instance, shown by the increasing number of reports of corruption that we receive. More work needs to be done, to increase the awareness about ethics in the society and intolerance towards corruption.The political elite is often seeing ethics as general statements and is less admitting that these are standards that should be respected in the public life and even less show personal examples of respecting them. Heads of public institutions also bear an important part of responsibility in implementing norms of ethics and also their work would be one of the most efficient instruments, as they will show an example that their colleagues will then need to follow. Finally, not everything can be regulated by the law.Even in such case, someone can try to get round it. There will also always remain potential for new conflicts of interest.
Often scandal of some individuals who have misused their position or acted in an unethical way is damaging the confidence in the whole public sector. On the other hand, each individual example shown by a public official, politician or individual public sector institution can help strengthening public trust and raising standards of all of us of what conduct we can tolerate and what – not any longer.

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