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Recommendation of the Council on Improving Ethical Conduct in the Public Service Including Principles for Managing Ethics in the Public Service
23 April 1998 - C(98)70/FINAL


HAVING REGARD to Article 5 b) of the Convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development;

CONSIDERING that ethical conduct in the public service contributes to the quality of democratic governance and economic and social progress by enhancing transparency and the performance of public institutions;

CONSIDERING that increased public concern with confidence in government has become an important public and political challenge for OECD Member countries;

RECOGNISING that public sector reforms are resulting in fundamental changes to public management that pose new ethical challenges;

RECOGNISING that although governments have different cultural, political and administrative environments, they often confront similar ethical challenges, and the responses in their ethics management show common characteristics;

RECOGNISING that Member countries are concerned to address ethical standards in public life by strengthening the efforts made by governments to improve ethical conduct;

HAVING REGARD to the political commitment of governments of Member countries, demonstrated by their actions to review and redefine their public service ethics framework;

CONSIDERING that public service integrity is essential for global markets to flourish and for international agreements to be respected;

HAVING REGARD to the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions which was signed on 17 December 1997;

HAVING REGARD to other recent developments which further advance international understanding and co-operation in promoting ethical culture in the public service, such as the Resolution on Action Against Corruption, including the International Code of Conduct for Public Officials, passed by the United Nations on 12 December 1996, the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption adopted by the Organization of American States in March 1996, the Programme of Action Against Corruption approved by the Council of Europe in November 1996, including the preparation of a model European Code of Conduct for Public Officials, and the adoption by the European Council of the Action Plan to Combat Organized Crime on
28 April 1997 and the Convention on the Fight against Corruption involving Officials of the European Communities or Officials of Member States of the European Union on 26 May 1997;

RECOGNISING the need of Member countries to have a point of reference when combining the elements of an effective ethics management system in line with their own political, administrative and cultural circumstances;

On the proposal of the Public Management Committee;

I.   RECOMMENDS that Member countries take action to ensure well-functioning institutions and systems for promoting ethical conduct in the public service. This can be achieved by:

• Developing and regularly reviewing policies, procedures, practices and institutions influencing ethical conduct in the public service;

• Promoting government action to maintain high standards of conduct and counter corruption in the public sector;

• Incorporating the ethical dimension into management frameworks to ensure that management practices are consistent with the values and principles of public service;

• Combining judiciously those aspects of ethics management systems based on ideals with those based on the respect of rules;

• Assessing the effects of public management reforms on public service ethical conduct;

• Using as a reference the Principles for Managing Ethics in the Public Service set out in the Annex to ensure high standards of ethical conduct.

II.   INSTRUCTS the Public Management Committee to:

• Analyse information provided by Member countries on how they apply these principles in their respective national contexts. The purpose of the analysis is to provide information on a comparative basis to support Member country actions to maintain well-functioning institutions and systems for promoting ethics;

• Provide support to Member countries to improve conduct in the public service by, inter alia, facilitating the process of information-sharing and disseminating promising practices in Member countries;

• Present a report in two years time analysing the experiences, actions and practices in the Member countries that have proved effective in a particular national context.




1.   High standards of conduct in the public service have become a critical issue for governments in OECD Member countries. Public management reforms involving greater devolution of responsibility and discretion for public servants, budgetary pressures and new forms of delivery of public services have challenged traditional values in the public service. Globalisation and the further development of international economic relations, including trade and investment, demand high recognisable standards of conduct in the public service. Preventing misconduct is as complex as the phenomenon of misconduct itself, and a range of integrated mechanisms are needed for success, including sound ethics management systems. Increased concern about decline of confidence in government and corruption has prompted governments to review their approaches to ethical conduct.

2.   In response to the above-mentioned challenges, the attached principles have been developed by the Member countries. The twelve principles are designed to help countries review the institutions, systems and mechanisms they have for promoting public service ethics. They identify the functions of guidance, management or control against which public ethics management systems may be checked. These principles distil the experience of OECD countries, and reflect shared views of sound ethics management. Member countries will find their own ways of balancing the various aspirational and compliance elements to arrive at an effective framework to suit their own circumstances.

3.   The principles may be used by management across national and sub-national levels of government. Political leaders may use them to review ethics management regimes and evaluate the extent to which ethics is operationalised throughout government. The principles are intended to be an instrument for countries to adapt to national conditions. They are not sufficient in themselves -- they should be seen as a way of integrating ethics management with the broader public management environment.

Principles for Managing Ethics in the Public Service

1.   Ethical Standards for Public Service should be Clear

Public servants need to know the basic principles and standards they are expected to apply to their work and where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lie. A concise, well-publicised statement of core ethical standards and principles that guide public service, for example in the form of a code of conduct, can accomplish this by creating a shared understanding across government and within the broader community.

2.   Ethical Standards should be Reflected in the Legal Framework

The legal framework is the basis for communicating the minimum obligatory standards and principles of behaviour for every public servant. Laws and regulations could state the fundamental values of public service and should provide the framework for guidance, investigation, disciplinary action and prosecution.

3.   Ethical Guidance should be Available to Public Servants

Professional socialisation should contribute to the development of the necessary judgement and skills enabling public servants to apply ethical principles in concrete circumstances. Training facilitates ethics awareness and can develop essential skills for ethical analysis and moral reasoning. Impartial advice can help create an environment in which public servants are more willing to confront and resolve ethical tensions and problems. Guidance and internal consultation mechanisms should be made available to help public servants apply basic ethical standards in the workplace.

4.   Public Servants should know their Rights and Obligations when Exposing Wrongdoing

Public servants need to know what their rights and obligations are in terms of exposing actual or suspected wrongdoing within the public service. These should include clear rules and procedures for officials to follow, and a formal chain of responsibility. Public servants also need to know what protection will be available to them in cases of exposing wrongdoing.

5.   Political Commitment to Ethics should Reinforce the Ethical Conduct of Public Servants

Political leaders are responsible for maintaining a high standard of propriety in the discharge of their official duties. Their commitment is demonstrated by example and by taking action that is only available at the political level, for instance by creating legislative and institutional arrangements that reinforce ethical behaviour and create sanctions against wrongdoing, by providing adequate support and resources for ethics-related activities throughout government and by avoiding the exploitation of ethics rules and laws for political purposes.

6.   The Decision-Making Process should be Transparent and Open to Scrutiny

The public has a right to know how public institutions apply the power and resources entrusted to them. Public scrutiny should be facilitated by transparent and democratic processes, oversight by the legislature and access to public information. Transparency should be further enhanced by measures such as disclosure systems and recognition of the role of an active and independent media.

7.   There should be Clear Guidelines for Interaction between the Public and Private Sectors

Clear rules defining ethical standards should guide the behaviour of public servants in dealing with the private sector, for example regarding public procurement, outsourcing or public employment conditions. Increasing interaction between the public and private sectors demands that more attention should be placed on public service values and requiring external partners to respect those same values.

8.   Managers should Demonstrate and Promote Ethical Conduct

An organisational environment where high standards of conduct are encouraged by providing appropriate incentives for ethical behaviour, such as adequate working conditions and effective performance assessment, has a direct impact on the daily practice of public service values and ethical standards. Managers have an important role in this regard by providing consistent leadership and serving as role models in terms of ethics and conduct in their professional relationship with political leaders, other public servants and citizens.

9.   Management Policies, Procedures and Practices should Promote Ethical Conduct

Management policies and practices should demonstrate an organisation's commitment to ethical standards. It is not sufficient for governments to have only rule-based or compliance-based structures. Compliance systems alone can inadvertently encourage some public servants simply to function on the edge of misconduct, arguing that if they are not violating the law they are acting ethically. Government policy should not only delineate the minimal standards below which a government official's actions will not be tolerated, but also clearly articulate a set of public service values that employees should aspire to.

10.   Public Service Conditions and Management of Human Resources should Promote Ethical Conduct

Public service employment conditions, such as career prospects, personal development, adequate remuneration and human resource management policies should create an environment conducive to ethical behaviour. Using basic principles, such as merit, consistently in the daily process of recruitment and promotion helps operationalise integrity in the public service.

11.   Adequate Accountability Mechanisms should be in Place within the Public Service

Public servants should be accountable for their actions to their superiors and, more broadly, to the public. Accountability should focus both on compliance with rules and ethical principles and on achievement of results. Accountability mechanisms can be internal to an agency as well as government-wide, or can be provided by civil society. Mechanisms promoting accountability can be designed to provide adequate controls while allowing for appropriately flexible management.

12.   Appropriate Procedures and Sanctions should Exist to Deal with Misconduct

Mechanisms for the detection and independent investigation of wrongdoing such as corruption are a necessary part of an ethics infrastructure. It is necessary to have reliable procedures and resources for monitoring, reporting and investigating breaches of public service rules, as well as commensurate administrative or disciplinary sanctions to discourage misconduct. Managers should exercise appropriate judgement in using these mechanisms when actions need to be taken.

Relevant body:
Public Management Committee now called Public Governance Committee
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