1 February 2011

Traditionally our society has looked to business leaders, lawyers and bankers as exemplars of professionalism.  These groups are well represented when appointments are made to public bodies and when national honours are awarded.  Implicit is their commitment to the well being of the community and their ethical worthiness.  Many are in leadership roles.  Yet these are the professions that now rate as poorly as politicians in the public perception. In New Zealand, public servants have greater occupational respect, according to the UMR Mood of the Nation survey.

The Commentary in Ethics Newsline this week draws an interesting relationship between a widespread unwillingness of people to be led, and the nature of leadership training.  This training too often cultivates excessive individualism. It undermines a sense of community which is the essence of ethics. “Ethics after all, is not egocentric but sociocentric. It arises more easily in those who think about others than in those who brood about their own personal goals. Identify yourself as a leader, and it is tempting to claim exceptions that don’t apply to others – to put yourself above the law…”

This concern is addressed in the “6 trust elements” by which State Services agencies are expected to entrench standards of integrity and conduct. A paramount requirement is that managers model the standards – that they walk the talk.  Yesterday, Public Service departments and statutory Crown entities were required to publish details of their chief executives’ expenditure on travel and hospitality, and the value of gifts and benefits received.  The State Services Commission has set a common format to be followed by agencies in promoting this transparency and demonstrating that the most senior managers are no less accountable than their staff.

Compliance at this stage is patchy, with fewer than 10% of agencies having met the specified publication date.  More practice will be necessary before agencies emulate Canada’s coordinated and disciplined disclosure process.