ETHICS, INTEGRITY AND APTITUDE

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The paper on Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude introduced by the UPSC in recent years for the Civil Services Main examination has attracted considerable attention and debate. With limited textbooks and reference materials available on the subject the students have been trying to cope with this new subject on the basis on their personal outlook and experience with government functionaries and service providers.There is also a perception that being able to write appropriate answers to the questions in the examination, does not automatically imply that a person is having those qualities in his or her character. In this blog I wish to highlight a few aspects of this topic.

First we shall see what the syllabus says. It is stated in the syllabus that the this paper will include questions to test the candidates attitude and approach to issues relating to integrity, probity in public life and problem solving approach to various issues and conflicts faced by public servants. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines integrity as the quality of having strong moral principles. The same dictionary defines probity as honesty and decency. There can be no difference of opinion that the quality of honesty and integrity are important for civil servants. Unlike those serving organizations whose aim is to earn maximum monetary profits, government activities are aimed at enforcing law and order and also  maximizing welfare of the people at large. While enforcing law, the civil servants are expected to be non-partisan and have a sense of fair-play.  The rich and the poor, the influential and the down-trodden are all equal before the law.  Civil servants are expected to invoke the provisions of law in a non-discriminatory manner.

 

Going beyond law enforcement, the civil servants are also now actively involved in various welfare and developmental activities. While implementing welfare programmesthey are expected to ensure that the benefits go to only those who are actually eligible and there are no leakages in the different levels of the administrative hierarchy. This is not always happening.Civil servants at the senior levels are in a position to be either good role models or bad ones. They can make or mar the image of the Department they are posted.

In recent times, a new element has been added to the administrative ethos. That is the humane aspect. This is very relevant in developing societies because most of the people who come to seek various services from the government offices belong to the socially and economically weaker sections. There is a societal expectation that they should be treated with compassion. Because of this societal expectation incidents of discourteous behavior towards weaker sections gets noticed and discussed, causing a great deal of embarrassment to the government.

There are many more aspects/qualities that today’s civil servants are expected to possess. We shall not go into each of these qualities in this short blog. We shall confine our discussion to a few questions from the recent examinations. In the 2015examination one question reads as follows:

“Public servants are likely to confront with the issues of conflict of interest. What do you understand by conflict of interest? How does it manifest in the decision-making by public servants? If you are faced with the conflict of interest situation, how would you resolve it? Explain with the help of examples. (150 words 10 marks).”

While answering the above question the candidate has to explain what is generally understood by the term conflict of  interest. Civil servants are expected to take all decisions keeping in mind the public interest. By public interest we mean the interest of the society at large, as opposed to self-interest.  In the course of your official duties you come across several situations in which you have a private interest in the subject matter. Take an example. You are sitting as a member of an Interview Board. One of the candidates appearing for selection is a close relation.  Would it be appropriate for you to sit in that Board and assess the suitability of that candidate for the job? In the judiciary there is an established convention that judges recuse themselves from hearing a case when the matter involves their private interest, such as the litigant is a close relation, or the judge has a stake or substantial shareholding in that company and so on. In many situations one may be able to recuse himself from a particular decision by asking your colleagues in the committee to carry on with the process. But in some situations if you are the sole or the main decision-maker, (e.g.the District Collector) it may not be possible for you to keep away from that process. But what can be done in such circumstances is to refer the case to your superior authority.

Your reply to the above question should not look as if you are above all personal likes and dislikes, that you are a person beyond being influenced by any connections or private interests. Or that your private personality is completely different from your public personality. No human being can pretend that he is above likes and dislikes, or above connections and influences. Your reply also should not be seen as an attempt to run away from that decision making (some officers have a tendency to avoid taking unpleasant decisions), but you should be able to convincingly explain that there is a genuine conflict involved and therefore it is advisable that it should be handled by someone else.

In the just concluded 2017 examination there was a somewhat similar question on conflict of interest. It reads as follows:

“Conflict of interest in the public sector arises when (a) official duties, (b) public interest, and (c)personal interest are taking priority one above the other. How can this conflict in administration be resolved. Describe with an example. (150 words)”

The above question can be answered by first describing what is official duty, what is public interest and what is personal interest. For instance, you have a large number of subordinate offices and it is one of your functions to inspect these offices periodically to assess their working. That is your official duty.  While visiting the places where the subordinate offices are located you may like to visit some well-known places of tourist attraction situated in the neighbor-hood. That part of your visit is your private matter. Here what should get priority? First visit the tourist attraction and then finally wind up by a casual inspection  of the subordinate office? Or first finish your inspection work and spend your spare time in the evening outside office hours to visit the tourist spot? And would you use your official vehicle to visit the tourist spot? If you have to use the official vehicle, would you offer to pay to the government, the normal taxi charges for that private trip.? What should come out in your reply is that you are totally opposed to misuse of your official resources for a purely private interest.

Here is another question from the 2015 examination:

“A mere compliance with law is not enough, the public servant also has to have a well-developed sensibility to ethical issues for effective discharge of duties. Do you agree? Explain with the help of two examples, one in which the act is ethically right but not legally right, and two in which the action is legally right but ethically wrong. (150 words 10 marks)”

The focus of the above question is whether you have a rigid bureaucratic approach to all issues or whether you are also sensitive to the people who are going to be affected by your decision. You should begin answering that question by describing what is law and what is ethics. Law is formalized norms of behavior. Violation invites punishment. Ethics go beyond the standards set by law. It may not be legally binding, but it has great moral force. Asking or accepting dowry is wrong on both counts – legally and ethically.  But there are many situations in which what is legal may not be ethical. For instance demolition of a building standing on a public land is legally correct, but if that building houses an school for the most underprivileged children such as construction labourers,  and it is being run by NGOs without charging any fees, would you be sensitive to the needs of the children involved. A civil servant who has empathy towards the poor and marginalized would first try to find alternative educational facility for those children, before embarking on demolition. On the other hand there are other examples in which the action is not legally correct, but ethically desirable.Doctors face such situations while dealing with terminally ill patients. Should they go on with the medication and other procedures, while knowing fully well that the chances of the person’s survival is almost nil. Should the doctor allow the patient the peace and quiet of his home and the company of his near and dear ones in the last few days or months of his life instead ofthe unfamiliar and crowded  hospital surroundings?

K.S.Sugathan IAS (Retd.)

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