Codes of ethics are a prominent tool to promote integrity and curb corruption in the public and private sector. Governments and individual organizations regularly put their values on paper in expectation that employees will aspire to uphold them. Since the 1990s in particular, national governments across the developed and developing world have adopted ethics codes. However, in practice, the effectiveness of codes of ethics remains contested. On the one hand, as formal documents, they both provide reminders for public servants to help recognise ethical dilemmas on the job and guidance on how to respond when facing ethically challenging situations on the job.1
On the other hand, ethics codes are often seen as ineffective. 2 They are criticised for being paper tigers, or even potentially harmful window dressing. Too often, their implementation is patchy, lack of compliance is not sanctioned, and their contribution to reducing corruption is negligible. Instead, their main purpose appears to ‘look good’ in the eyes of international donors, the media, and other audiences. In this respect, ethics codes share many features of other governance reform initiatives in developing countries that are subject to ‘institutional isomorphism’, or mimicry of ostensibly desirable forms of organizing the public sector.3
Taking into account these contradictory arguments, we have recently published an article in the Review of Public Personnel Administration that builds on arguments regarding the interdependence of anti-corruption tools. Organizations from the OECD to Transparency International argue that policy makers need to consider baskets of tools, or frameworks, in their fight against corruption, rather than focus on distinct and isolated anti-corruption interventions.4 Specifically, we have studied how the interaction of ethics codes and disciplinary codes affects corruption in public service.
Compared to ethics codes, disciplinary codes represent a more hard-nosed alternative to corruption prevention in government. They are highly formalised documents which define procedures and, in particular, sanctions, for public servants who are found guilty of misconduct. As such, disciplinary codes focus much more traditionally on the deterring impact of penalties than on positively defining guidance or standards of good behaviour for public servants.
In order to examine the effect of the interplay of ethics and disciplinary codes on corruption we conducted a survey of public servants in Poland. We focused on central government ministries and secured responses from more than 1,000 public servants in senior, middle, and lower-ranking positions.
In the first instance, we found that public servants’ experience with corruption varies greatly across institutions. For instance, public servants in the Ministry of Finance had been exposed more frequently to rumours of kickbacks, which we used as our measure of corruption, in their work environment than public servants in other ministries.
Similarly, it was evident that public servants have very different experiences with the implementation of ethics and disciplinary codes in their institutions. In some institutions such as the Ministry of Justice both types of codes are much more prominent than in other ministries such as the Ministry of Interior.
These findings alone speak volumes about how policy makers can combat corruption. Overarching anti-corruption frameworks notwithstanding, each organization is different both in terms of the scope of the problem and the implementation of proposed solutions. This should not come as a surprise. Corruption likely varies in scope and nature with the particularities of policy sectors, as has been convincingly developed by the Curbing Corruption initiative. And the implementation of solutions like disciplinary and ethics codes are ultimately in the hands of public managers, meaning leadership. In particular, ethical leadership practices potentially matter greatly and differ from one institution to another as well as within individual institutions.
Beyond these insights, we find little evidence that either codes of ethics or disciplinary codes, on their own, substantially reduce corruption. However, their simultaneous forceful implementation is associated with less corruption in central government ministries in Poland. The more disciplinary codes are applied in practice, the more ethics codes curb corruption in public service. One anti-corruption tool relies on the other for its proper functioning.
We believe that this provides good news for anti-corruption policy-makers. It confirms that ethics codes can be effective. However, our data show they are effective only if they are adopted and implemented in combination with other anti-corruption tools. The next step for academics and people working in governance is to collaborate and develop a better understanding of other configurations of anti-corruption tools that would be effective when used together
For a modern, smart anti-corruption strategy, blindly throwing compounds of a variety of costly and cumbersome anti-corruption tools at the problem will not do. Instead, combinations of synergistic tools for maximal impact is the way forward.
1 Beeri, I., Dayan, R., Vigoda-Gadot, E., & Werner, S. B. (2013). Advancing ethics in public organizations: The impact of an ethics program on employees’ perceptions and behaviors in a regional council. Journal of Business Ethics, 112(1), 59–78.
2 Garcia-Sanchez, I., Rodriguez-Dominguez, L., & Gallego-Alvarez, I. (2011). Effectiveness of ethics codes in the public sphere: Are they useful in controlling corruption? International Journal of Public Administration, 34(3), 190–195.
3 Matt Andrews (2013) The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development: Changing Rules for Realistic Solutions. Cambridge: CUP.
4 Six, F., & Lawton, A. (2013). Towards a theory of integrity systems: A configurational approach. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 79(4), 639–658.
Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling is a professor of political science at University of Nottingham. His research concentrates on executive politics and the transformation of governance in Europe. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and was a Max Weber Fellow and a Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. Meyer-Sahling has been the author of OECD-SIGMA Reports on civil service professionalisation in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Western Balkans.
Kim Sass Mikkelsen is an associate professor of politics and public administration in the Department of Social Science and Business at Roskilde University. His research focuses on public sector human resource management, government ethics, and social science research methods. He holds a PhD in political science from Aarhus University. He has co-authored numerous reports and briefs on government HRM and ethics, for among others ReSPA, DFID, and national governments.