4. Standards

Public integrity is “the consistent alignment of, and adherence to, shared ethical values, principles and norms for upholding and prioritising the public interest over private interests in the public sector” (OECD, 2017[1]). In other words, it involves doing the right things, doing things for the right reasons, and doing things the right way (Heywood et al., 2017[2]). However, understanding what is meant by “right” requires clear standards. High standards set out in the legal framework clarify which behaviours are expected of public officials and provide a framework for governments to enable ethical behaviour. Setting standards of conduct that can be learned, internalised and enforced can support the creation of a shared understanding across government and among citizens.

The OECD Recommendation on Public Integrity calls on adherents to “set high standards of conduct for public officials, in particular through:

  1. a. Going beyond minimum requirements, prioritising the public interest, adherence to public-service values, an open culture that facilitates and rewards organisational learning and encourages good governance;

  2. b. Including integrity standards in the legal system and organisational policies (such as codes of conduct or codes of ethics) to clarify expectations and serve as a basis for disciplinary, administrative, civil and/or criminal investigation and sanctions, as appropriate;

  3. c. Setting clear and proportionate procedures to help prevent violations of public integrity standards and to manage actual or potential conflicts of interest;

  4. d. Communicating public sector values and standards internally in public sector organisations and externally to the private sector, civil society and individuals, and asking these partners to respect those values and standards in their interactions with public officials” (OECD, 2017[1]).

Standards inform and guide public officials’ behaviour in carrying out their public duties. There are a number of tools and mechanisms that governments can use to set and safeguard high standards of conduct. The following components are essential elements to operationalise high standards of integrity:

  • clearly defined and mandatory high standards of conduct in the legal framework that prioritise the public interest and adherence to public service values.

  • legal and regulatory frameworks and strategies that embed integrity values and standards.

  • clear and proportionate procedures and processes to prevent and manage issues that could violate public integrity standards if left unchecked.

  • internal and external communication measures to raise awareness of public sector values and standards.

Setting high standards of conduct that must be implemented by any public official and that prioritise the public interest reflects the commitment to serving the general interest and building a public service-oriented culture. Standards of conduct express public sector values, and the values of any public service are key to guiding the behaviour of public officials. Values set out the basic principles and expectations that society deems to be of importance for public officials, and provide clarity for organisations and public officials at all levels regarding expected behaviours. These values are set out in the appropriate standards defined in legal and/or administrative systems, such as statutes and general acts on public service, as well as in the constitution, labour laws, special service or public service regulations, and administrative procedure laws.

Values are informed not only by domestic norms, but also by international standards. For example, Article 8 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) requires state parties to promote integrity, honesty and responsibility among their public officials, in accordance with the fundamental principles of their legal system. Within this context, integrity is defined as mentioned in the introduction to this chapter. Honesty refers to honour, respectability and virtue, whereas responsibility is the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or be accountable for something (Bacio Terracino, 2019[3]).

The Recommendation on Public Integrity encourages adherents to go beyond minimum requirements and prioritise the public interest, and to cultivate an open culture that facilitates and rewards organisational learning and encourages good governance. These concepts are explored elsewhere (for more, see Chapters 8 and 9). Sanctions in case of non-adherence to requirements can also shape behaviour. Yet, they rarely provide motivation to go beyond minimum codified requirements (Wegner, Schöberlein and Biermann, 2013[4]). Incentive-driven approaches, such as rewarding individuals who actively promote integrity, can encourage the implementation of higher standards and ethical behaviours by appealing to individuals’ sense of morality and responsibility (Zúñiga, 2018[5]). This may incrementally result in changes and in codifying higher standards.

Standards of conduct are embedded in the legal system and organisational policies, which set out the basic principles and clarify the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Clear standards also provide a common framework to ensure accountability, including by applying sanctions for violations of public integrity standards. Much attention has been focused on criminalisation of corruption, but strong legal and regulatory frameworks and strategies rely on combining not only criminal law but also civil and administrative laws, as well as codes of conduct or ethics, to embed integrity values and standards.

A number of standards compose the broader integrity system. These frameworks and strategies cover bribery, fraud, trading in influence, money laundering, managing and preventing conflict of interest, managing gifts and gratuities, declaration of assets and pre- and post-public employment, as well as functions related to whistleblower protection, integrity and transparency in lobbying, and financing of political parties and campaigns. While various institutions may be responsible for designing and implementing the policies associated with these standards (for more, see Chapter 2), including these in the legal and regulatory framework and/or strategy is key.

OECD countries enshrine integrity standards applicable to public officials, with respective investigative procedures and sanctions, in criminal law. Domestic provisions applying to public officials establish clear jurisdiction over offences. To guarantee an effective integrity system and enforcement, they define specialised functions, effective investigative procedures and measures for inter-institutional co-operation, protection of witnesses, gathering of evidence and confiscation of proceeds when applicable, as well as proportionate sanctions for:

  • active and passive bribery of public officials

  • trading in influence

  • embezzlement, misappropriation or other diversion of property by a public official

  • abuse of functions

  • illicit enrichment

  • money laundering

  • concealment of property resulting from corruption

  • creating or using an invoice or accounting document or record containing false or incomplete information, and unlawfully omitting to make a record of payment

  • obstruction of justice.

Because these core standards are essential to national public integrity systems, countries have recognised them at the international level. They have been included in international conventions such as the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions; the Council of Europe Criminal Law Convention on Corruption; and the United Nations Convention against Corruption.

Civil law is a critical tool for ensuring the protection of individuals’ rights and providing compensation for victims of violations of standards. It is a complementary tool to criminal law and allows the private sector, civil society and any legal person to take part in the fight against violations of standards.

Domestic civil law provides for effective remedies where persons have suffered damage following integrity breaches. In defining these civil law mechanisms, governments enable victims to defend their rights and interests. Victims should have the possibility to request compensation for damages, and this right should cover material damage caused to the victims and loss of profits as well as non-pecuniary losses. Civil domestic laws establish the right to initiate an action for compensation. Procedures and functions should also be clearly defined to guarantee effective implementation. Compensation or restitution may happen after the claim for damages occurs in criminal proceedings. In some instances, both criminal and civil procedures may be used to sanction and deter violations.

In addition to compensation for damages, the key integrity provisions defined in domestic civil laws are:

  • liability of public officials, including the possibility, when several defendants are liable for damage for the same action, that they are jointly and severally liable, and liability of the state for violations of standards committed by public officials

  • contributory negligence, providing in law that the compensation is reduced or denied considering particular circumstances, if the victim contributed to the damage or its aggravation

  • validity of contracts

  • whistleblower protection

  • clarity and accuracy of accounts and audits

  • effective procedures for acquisition of evidence in civil proceedings deriving from an act of corruption

  • court orders to preserve the assets necessary for execution of the final judgement and for the maintenance of the status quo pending resolution of the points at issue.

As crucial tools for legal and natural persons to fight against integrity breaches and receive compensation or restitution (United Nations, 2010[6]), civil law procedures have also been further recognised and embedded in international conventions such as the Council of Europe Civil Law Convention on Corruption and the United Nations Convention against Corruption.

Domestic administrative law defines the rights and duties of public administrations in their relations with the public. In cases of violation of standards of conduct, administrative sanctions also include non-judicial penalties, such as economic sanctions or debarment.

Ethics-related administrative law aims to safeguard the integrity of individual civil servants and of the whole civil service, and encourages good governance in institutions. The core standards and processes embedded in administrative law should cover:

  • standards: civil service statute and obligations of public service, freedom of information, transparency of public contracts, political financing and lobbying activities, and access to administrative justice

  • processes: administrative responsibilities and sanctions, internal control and oversight mechanisms, prevention and management of conflict of interest, whistleblower protection and management of complaints, and competent authorities dealing with procedures, including reviews of decisions and appeals, and sanctions.

Considering the impact of these various standards within the national administrative, civil, and criminal legislative and regulatory frameworks, countries have promoted their significance by further committing to and embedding them at the international level in various international conventions, agreements and declarations.

Codes of conduct and codes of ethics clearly present and illustrate the diverse legal and regulatory frameworks, and are a useful tool to guide behaviour. Codes of conduct clarify expected standards and prohibited situations, whereas codes of ethics identify the principles that guide behaviour and decision making. Most national regulatory frameworks are situated between both instruments, which combine public service values with guidance on how to apply the expected standards and principles of conduct. Such combinations find a balance between formulating general core values and offering public officials a framework to support day-to-day decision making. For example, the Australian Public Service Act 1999 outlines core values for the public service, which are then expanded into a concrete code of conduct within the same document. Similarly in Canada, the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector combines both codes by defining values, including integrity, and then including a chapter on “expected behaviours” for each value (Government of Canada, 2012[7]). Regulations in countries have adopted codes that explain how the values can be translated in public officials’ daily conduct – for example, the Korean Code of Conduct for Maintaining the Integrity of Public Officials and the New Zealand Standards of Integrity and Conduct and its related guidance document (OECD, 2013[8]). Practical examples in the code or in associated guidance help to specify the generally formulated values, as well as further elaborate with practical examples on how the public official can act when faced with certain circumstances.

International models, such as the International Code of Conduct for Public Officials1 or the Council of Europe Model Code of Conduct2, provide guidance on the issues most commonly covered in codes of conduct. Such issues include conflict of interest, gifts and hospitalities, obligations to report misconduct, bribery and other forms of undue influence, the use of information held by public authorities, and leaving the public service. Table 4.1 elaborates on the most common duties and prohibitions contained in codes of conduct in OECD countries.

A code is clear and simple, logically structured, and linked to all other related documents or legislation that form part of the wider integrity system (Bacio Terracino, 2019[9]). Including an explicit reference to the formal chain of responsibility and what protection is available in cases of exposing wrongdoing is also recommended. Involving stakeholders in the drafting and validation process helps build a common understanding of expected standards of conduct, and improves the clarity and ownership of the code.

In addition to a general code of conduct, standards can be adapted to sensitive sectors and roles within the public administration through tailored codes. In particular, tailored codes of conduct can be developed for at-risk positions, such as procurement officials or those working in customs. In Canada, while it is aligned with the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector and the national conflict-of-interest policy, a separate and regularly updated code applies to procurement officials (Government of Canada, 2019[10]). Elected officials and judicial officials may also have specific codes adapted to their functions, duties and missions. Codes may also guide the behaviour of political advisers, given their role in shaping policies.

As the private sector may participate in decision making and delivering public services, applying standards of conduct there as well can also increase confidence in government decisions and transactions. The Supplier Code of Conduct in the United Kingdom is an example of outlining the standards and behaviours that governments should expect from their suppliers. Similarly, to strengthen confidence in the public decision-making process, some countries also require a code of conduct for lobbyists (for more, see Chapter 13).

To maintain credibility and relevance, public officials need to be accountable for complying with the standards of conduct. Chapter 11 covers the core elements of an effective disciplinary system. When designing the standards, it is necessary to consider whether the duties are legally and disciplinarily binding, or merely ethically and morally dissuasive with regard to violations. Reliable procedures and resources for reporting and investigating breaches of conduct, as well as for monitoring compliance with the code, are necessary. For standards that are legally and disciplinarily binding, assigning clear and proportionate administrative or disciplinary sanctions can help promote compliance with integrity standards. Sanctions can take different forms, including:

  • warnings and reprimands (either written or oral)

  • monetary disadvantages (e.g. fines, salary penalties)

  • impact on current or future career (e.g. demotions, transfers)

  • ban from public office, i.e. preventing offending former officials from occupying public office for specific periods

  • dismissal from office.

The type of sanction may vary according to the gravity of the breach of the code. For instance, the Australian Public Service Act 1999 provides a range of administrative sanctions where public servants have breached the code of conduct, ranging from reprimand to termination of office (Australian Government, 1999[11]).

Both clarity and proportionality increase the fairness, acceptability and efficiency of the procedures to prevent violations of public integrity standards. Clarity of the procedures is essential for public officials to understand how they should behave; what they should report if needed and to whom and when; and the sanctions they face if they do not comply with the standards and rules. If the steps of the procedures, expectations and requirements differ for certain categories of functions (e.g. elected officials, political appointees, members of cabinet, etc.) or sectors (public procurement, tax, customs, etc.), these differences should be made explicit. Offering public officials guidance on and training and education in the procedures – whether through a hotline, booklets, websites, or a dedicated function, unit or institution – increases the clarity and diffusion of the standards and procedures.

Proportionality of the procedures ensures a tailored approach, achieved through gradually considering the functions occupied, the potential risks, and levels of seniority and exposure. In practice, this may result in additional requirements for high-ranking elected and non-elected officials and at-risk positions, for instance with regard to assets and interest disclosure or making public leaders’ agendas public.

To illustrate what clear and proportionate procedures mean in practice, the example of managing and preventing conflict of interest is detailed. At the outset, the definition of a “conflict of interest” is essential to understanding the issue and how to identify, manage and resolve it (OECD, 2004[12]). A descriptive approach (defining a conflict of interest in general terms) or a prescriptive one (defining a range of situations considered as being in conflict with public duties) may be adopted.

In addition to defining conflict of interest, effective implementation relies on public officials knowing when and how to identify a potential or real conflict of interest. As conflict of interest can never be fully eliminated, a balanced approach between public service obligations and public officials’ private lives and interests enables those public officials to identify and avoid unacceptable forms of conflict of interest, and to inform the relevant body, whether it be a manager or a specialised unit or body, of their existence.

Specifying the key moments throughout a public official’s career where they are required to identify and report conflicts of interest, such as during the pre-employment and post-employment phases, or prior to taking part in a new project with private sector actors, can build clarity into the processes. However, as conflicts of interest can arise throughout a public official’s career, it is also useful to ensure that the policy and guidance detail the applicable reporting and management procedures. The procedure to manage or resolve a conflict of interest should be proportionate to the functions occupied, and could include one or more of the following mechanisms:

  • removal (temporary or permanent)

  • recusal or restriction

  • transfer or rearrangement

  • resignation (OECD, 2004[13]).

Clear rules and guidance also need to be accompanied by awareness-raising and capacity-building measures that familiarise public officials with their responsibilities for managing conflict-of-interest situations, as well as sanctions for when public officials do not effectively manage conflict of interest (Bacio Terracino, 2019[3]).

Communication of the standards, both internally within the organisation and externally with stakeholders, makes them part of the organisational culture. Whichever communication method and corresponding messages are used, public organisations should emphasise that backing the message with action is critical to implementing public integrity standards (for more, see Chapters 6 and 9).

Diffusion through diverse media is likely to increase understanding of standards of conduct and accessibility to and use of the code. At a minimum, officials, including new officials, may be given their own personal copy of the code or ready access to it. A dedicated page or section may be assigned on an organisation’s intranet as a repository of information related to standards of conduct. The “Conduct and Performance” section of the Queensland Government (Australia) official portal includes relevant strategic and corporate documents, policies and procedures as well as interactive activities, feedback boxes, and frequently asked questions.

Traditional communication channels include memos, brochures, newsletters, policy manuals, annual reports and posters. Opportunities to refer to public sector values can also include formal speeches or presentations, as well as one‐to‐one advice. Other effective forums for discussion may include team meetings, focus groups, brown-bag lunches and social events. Standards of conduct can also be disseminated through electronic channels such as intranets, blogs, podcasts, chat rooms, video conferencing, instant messaging systems, and quiz tools. These are eye-catching formats that can target officials’ electronic devices (including mobile devices), and be programmed to run and be repeated over a certain period.

Communicating standards within public organisations is necessary but not sufficient. As interactions between the public sector and society are common, including individuals, civil society organisations, academia and private sector actors in awareness-raising campaigns allows governments to disseminate public values and standards. Awareness-raising efforts, education and consultation mechanisms are three essential features to communicate standards externally.

Awareness-raising campaigns are the main method used by public sector organisations to increase understanding of public integrity issues. They often highlight a specific issue and reach a designated audience. Campaigns can take various forms, ranging from traditional media (radio, television, print) to social media (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) – or a combination, depending on the objectives and target audiences.

Education is essential for disseminating integrity standards and norms to the young. Partnering with actors in the education system is thus a way to diffuse standards among society. Education for public integrity is concerned with inspiring ethical behaviour and equipping young people in both primary and secondary schools with knowledge and the skills to prevent violations of the standards. Beyond classroom learning, learning-by-doing experiences contribute to developing young people’s integrity skills and competencies. This may take the form of integrity projects in which they monitor real-life public processes (for more see Chapter 5, Box 5.4).

External diffusion of public integrity standards also relies on institutionalising stakeholder engagement. This means governments establish formal requirements to consult stakeholders on new integrity policies, whether in the development, update or implementation of the public integrity system (for more see Chapter 5, Box 5.6). Transparent stakeholder engagement involves publicly documenting who was consulted, their input, and the government’s response to the main issues. In the regulatory field, engaging stakeholders in developing regulations has improved compliance with and acceptance of the regulations. For more on the relationship between stakeholder engagement, integrity and policy making, see Chapter 13.

In their interactions with public officials, third parties and partners are key actors for diffusing and safeguarding public values and standards. Public organisations can therefore communicate that they expect the same high standards of conduct from all individuals involved in the provision of public services, including third-party providers. To achieve this, they can provide them with a clear statement of expectations prior to potential engagement. Indeed, unless the public sector values are unambiguously translated into contractual arrangements and clear guidance is provided, it is unlikely that providers of public services will know they are applicable to them or accord sufficient priority to how they are expected to behave (UK Committee on Standards in Public Life, 2014[14]). As well, laws regulating lobbying or relations between the administration and the public can call on external actors and individuals to uphold these values and standards in their interactions with public organisations and officials. In addition, codes of conduct for lobbyists or specific codes or provisions for contracted partners also enable clear communication of public standards and expected behaviours with public officials.

Adopting a whole-of-society approach and commitment to standards will help strengthen their daily implementation. Combined dissemination efforts both within and outside public organisations are key to ensuring that values and standards are understood and implemented by all. It is essential to recognise and recall that fostering a culture of integrity in the public sector is not just about public officials and organisations, but also involves individuals, academia, civil society and private sector actors. For more on these awareness-raising, education and engagement aspects, see Chapter 5.

Although challenges depend mostly on the particularities of the local and national contexts in which organisations operate, a few common obstacles deter public administrations from effectively setting high standards of conduct. The most relevant ones are discussed below.

Standards and guidance for ethical conduct often derive from a commitment to overarching values (OECD, 2018[15]). These values are the basis for evaluating everyday choices and actions, yet overloading the number of values can have the opposite effect, with public officials unable to remember them. This is because the number of items that humans can store in their working memory is limited. As such, limiting the values to no more than seven elements (plus or minus two) can help improve understanding and implementation (see Box 4.1).

Consistent ethical role modelling from managers is one of the main sources of promotion and diffusion of standards of conduct. Social learning theory shows that people learn from one another, via observation, imitation and modelling, and that managers’ engagement in unethical acts is the biggest driver of unethical behaviour (Hanna, Crittenden and Crittenden, 2013[16]). Even the best-designed codes of conduct, processes and integrity structures fall short if public officials are not encouraged to follow visibly committed managers and leaders. For more on high-level commitment and role modelling, see Chapters 1 and 6.

In designing standards and procedures for managing, preventing and detecting conflict of interest, governments have adopted various approaches. Some of these procedures require public officials to disclose annually their assets and/or interests to their institution or to a central unit or commission tasked with monitoring the disclosure process. When resources are limited, an annual flow of declarations submitted by all or most national civil servants is a challenge to the effective prevention of conflicts of interest. Experience over the past decades suggests that a tailored identification of categories of public officials providing such declarations that is subject to verification mechanisms; clearly defined coverage of the information disclosed; and public availability of non-confidential information are all essential in ensuring effective implementation (Bacio Terracino, 2019[9]).

When designing policies to prevent, detect and manage actual or potential conflicts of interest, setting clear and proportionate procedures is key to ensuring their effective implementation. These may include notably:

  • setting clear objectives of the procedures in terms of transparency, prevention of conflicts of interest and/or verification of the accuracy of the information disclosed

  • defining precisely the information that must be disclosed and to whom it must be disclosed

  • identifying categories of public officials who should disclose this information considering their functions and exposure to risks

  • defining the extent to which the information disclosed regarding these different categories of public officials can be made publicly available

  • adapting the frequency of disclosure as well as the means and resources dedicated to monitoring the disclosure system

  • providing officials with guidance on the procedure and the information to be disclosed

  • setting proportionate sanctions in case of violations.

Preventing conflict-of-interest situations for the highest-ranking public officials was established in the French legal framework for the first time in 2013, based on a gradual approach to disclosure and publication of their assets and interests (Box 4.2).

Clear and proportionate procedures to prevent conflict of interest require clear mandates and dedicated human, technical and financial resources for the public officials in charge to perform their role. Without the necessary guarantees of and proportionality to ensure effectiveness of the procedures and prevention of conflict of interest, disclosure and verification systems may lack the relevance and credibility to participate in regulating conflict of interest.


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[3] Bacio Terracino, J. (2019), “Article 7: Public sector”, in C. Rose, M. (ed.), The United Nations Convention against Corruption: A Commentary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-united-nations-convention-against-corruption-9780198803959?cc=fr&lang=en&# (accessed on 24 January 2020).

[9] Bacio Terracino, J. (2019), “Article 8. Codes of conduct for public officials”, in Rose, C., M. Kubiciel and O. Landwehr (eds.), The United Nations Convention against Corruption: A Commentary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-united-nations-convention-against-corruption-9780198803959?cc=fr&lang=en& (accessed on 24 January 2020).

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[2] Heywood, P. et al. (2017), Integrity and Integrity Management in Public Life, The University of Birmingham, https://research.birmingham.ac.uk/portal/files/42921002/D11_4_FINAL_combined.pdf (accessed on 31 May 2019).

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[4] Wegner, S., J. Schöberlein and S. Biermann (2013), Motivating Business to Counter Corruption: A Practitioner Handbook on Anti-Corruption Incentives and Sanctions, Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance, https://www.governance-platform.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/HVSG_ACIS_PractitionerHandbook_20131121.pdf (accessed on 16 July 2019).

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← 1. UNGA “Action against corruption”, UNGAOR, 51st Session UN Doc A/Res/51/59 (28 January 1997).

← 2. Council of Europe, Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on codes of conduct for public officials (No. R [2000] 10).

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