Some thoughts about ethics in public administration

 By Thomas Scapin, Researcher at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon, France

In this brief blog post, I would like to share some thoughts[1] about ethics or integrity[2] in public administration. My presentation will fall into two parts. On the one hand, I’m going to put into historical perspective the idea that the policy agenda in the OECD zone has been recently shifting from anti-corruption to integrity. On the other hand, I will present a theoretical concept of administrative ethics which emphasizes the specific challenges related to this issue and the way to understand it in different contexts.

First of all, it is worth noting that both the international and research agendas already started to shift from anti-corruption to integrity in the mid 1990s. For example, the Public Management Committee (PUMA) of the OCDE began activities at the time on how to manage public officials’ ethics in order to promote integrity rather than only fighting corruption. For that purpose, the international organization has designed an “ethics infrastructure” consisting of “tools and processes to regulate against undesirable behavior and to provide incentives to good conduct” (OECD 1996, 8). At the same time, several member countries started to review their ethics policy in the public service to emphasize a more positive and preventive approach. Good examples can be found in the UK with the Nolan Committee (see Committee on Standards in Public Life, 1995), and in Canada with the Task Force on Public Service Values and Ethics (see Canadian Center for Management Development & Tait, 2000). There was simultaneously a renewed interest for this topic in the academic sphere as well. Scholars in public administration have especially debated about “the impact of NPM reforms on public servants’ ethics” (Maesschalck, 2004). More generally, there has been a rise in the study of public administration ethics and integrity in the United States and Europe since the late 1990s and early 2000s (see Menzel, 2005 and Lawton & Doig, 2006).

Let us consider now the way to understand administrative ethics in varying contexts. As a French scholar doing comparative analysis of this issue, I’ve often struggled with the ambiguous meaning of ethics. Indeed, researchers as well as practitioners tend to understand this notion in many different ways depending on their academic discipline and/or national background. This confusion is well exemplified by the problem of translating from one language to another. Take for example the three words ethics, integrity and deontology which exist both in English and French. When applied to public administration, the words “integrity” or “ethics” are usually translated into French by “déontologie”. Why? This is due to the fact that intégrité stands for a particular ethical value while éthique is generally linked to personal morality. But more importantly, many scholars in France working on public administration are lawyers and thus look at ethical issues from a very legalistic point of view. The French word déontologie referring to the legal norms and obligations applying to professional public servants does express this perspective.

In order to overcome these difficulties, I have devised a theoretical concept which outlines what are, in my opinion, the two main dimensions of administrative ethics (Scapin, 2016). This concept tries to shed light in a more comprehensive and explicit way on the challenges underlying this issue. It is also regarded as an analytical grid to draw comparisons more easily between diverse cases or countries. By and large, it seems necessary to distinguish between two levels of concern when dealing with public administration ethics:

  • the managerial dimension, which focuses on the management of civil servants’ behaviours and practices in the process of policy-making and policy implementation. It relies both on the compliance-based and integrity-based approaches to ethics management (OECD, 1996, 61-62), i.e. the laws, rules, norms and all binding and non-binding processes, mechanisms and instruments used to manage conducts in public administration on a daily basis;
  • the normative dimension, which refers to the substantive content of administrative ethics, i.e. the core principles and values, especially the political and moral ones (the public interest, rule of law, honesty, neutrality, fairness etc.), which define the public service’s professional identity and guide its specific role in the democratic system. This dimension is thus concerned with the legitimacy of public administration and citizens’ trust in government.

Finally, a few comments need to be made after presenting this concept. Firstly, the two dimensions are strongly intertwined and necessary to characterize public administration ethics.

Indeed, the latter dimension is particularly essential since it points out to the broad normative framework which legitimates any kind of public behavior or action. It thus refers to the specificity of administrative ethics, regardless of the mechanisms used to manage people’s behaviours in any setting. Secondly, it’s possible to single out three degrees of analysis applying to each dimension of administrative ethics, namely the overall civil service, the organizational level and the individual level. Thirdly, both the compliance-based and integrity-based approaches must be taken into account to manage ethics in public administration. On the one hand, laws and rules provide limits to public officials’ behaviours. On the other hand, integrity tools (training, advise, codes of conduct etc.) which stimulate ethical judgement must enable public servants to decide and act in an ethical way depending on the practical circumstances, especially when confronted with conflicting values and norms.


Canadian Centre for Management Development & Tait, John C. (2000), A Strong Foundation: Report of the Task Force on Public Service Values and Ethics, Ottawa: The Task Force.

Committee on Standards in Public Life (1995), Standards in Public Life. First Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Chairman Lord Nolan, London: HMSO, vol. 1: report.

Lawton, Alan & Doig, Alan (2006), “Researching Ethics for Public Service Organizations: The View From Europe”, Public Integrity 8(1): 11–33.

Maesschalck, Jeroen (2004), “The Impact of New Public Management Reforms on Public Servants’ Ethics: Towards a Theory”, Public Administration 82(2): 465–489.

Menzel, Donald C. (2005), “Research on Ethics and Integrity in Governance: A Review and Assessment”, Public Integrity 7(2): 147–168.

OECD (1996), Ethics in the Public Service: Current Issues and Practice, Paris: OECD Publishing.

Scapin, Thomas (2016), “The Ambiguous Meaning of the Ethical Issue in a Context of NPM Reforms: Insights from the OECD, Canada and France”, NISPAcee Journal of Public Administration and Policy 9(2): 93–119.

[1] A more detailed analysis may be found in Scapin, Thomas (2016), “The Ambiguous Meaning of the Ethical Issue in a Context of NPM Reforms: Insights from the OECD, Canada and France”, NISPAcee Journal of Public Administration and Policy 9(2): 93–119, available at

[2] For clarity’s sake, no distinction is made here between the concepts of ethics and integrity.

Posted in Integrity, Integrity Blog
One comment on “Some thoughts about ethics in public administration
  1. Waldemar says:

    This concept tries to shed light in a more comprehensive and explicit way on the challenges underlying this issue of people’s behaviours:

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