6 January 2011

Self interest can always defeat integrity.  That is why transparency is essential whenever there is a possibility of a conflict of interest.  Breaches of integrity standards can have a devastating social effect. UK media today provide details of the “elaborate fraud” behind  an MMP vaccine study published in the Lancet in 1998.  That research, purporting to establish the vaccine was  a cause of autism, led to significant numbers of parents refusing vaccinations for their children.  That has exposed many to disease and caused increased incidence of measles worldwide.

Although the Lancet has retracted its publication of the study, the profile given to the research means that many remain convinced about the claims.

Andrew Wakefield, the medical researcher who led the study team, was struck off the UK register of medical practitioners in May 2010. The followed confirmation that data for the study had been falsified.

What has come to light now is that at the time of the study, Wakefield was retained by lawyers representing parties taking action against vaccine manufacturers. Wakefield did not see that as a conflict. But his research colleagues were not aware of the association. The circumstances speak for themselves.

This case illustrates the need for openness. It is important that public sector agencies have well publicised processes for disclosing personal interests, and that all officials exercising discretions, readily disclose matters which have the potential to influence their decision making.

There is nothing new in an ethics memo sent by the US Deputy Secretary of Defence to very senior Pentagon leaders just before Christmas.  The content echoes much of the State Service Commissioner’s guidance for State servants in Understanding the code of conduct. But what is pertinent for those running the Pentagon will be equally pertinent for leaders everywhere.

The memo emphasises that integrity must be a high priority, as even the slightest lapses erode public confidence. Actions must be driven by fundamental values of integrity, impartiality, fairness and respect which must be reinforced by holding each other accountable. Leaders must be aware of, and comply with, the law  – and in particular, conflicts of interest provisions. There is a need to vigilantly avoid any action that gives rise to public concern about the integrity of departmental processes and decisions. “Honorable intentions or personal ethos cannot justify conduct that creates public doubt about propriety and fairness….”

Wakefield’s bogus science shows what can happen when these expectations are disregarded. If government agencies are to be trusted by the public, people working in those agencies must behave in a trustworthy way.