Maintaining integrity through turmoil

While structural change is common in the public sector, it doesn’t make the upheaval and turmoil any easier on those affected, writes VANESSA PIGRUM.

Vanessa Pigrum

Our world is constantly changing. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus illustrated this point around 500 BCE by highlighting the impossibility of standing in the same river twice. You might step in at the same point, but the water rushing past will always be different. We live in a state of perpetual flux. This must feel particularly true for federal public servants at the moment.

While structural change is relatively common in the public sector – almost every new government makes their mark in some way – it doesn’t make the upheaval and turmoil any easier on those affected. Forewarned is not necessarily forearmed. Reconfiguring departments, altering programs and reassigning teams takes a toll.

One of the biggest impacts is on the organisational culture. This matters because culture dictates what we do and how we do it. It provides a shared framework in which to couch decisions, providing a shortcut for effectively managing day-to-day operational minutiae, and creating space to properly engage with more consequential challenges.

A positive culture is a powerful inoculant against unethical behaviour. But you can’t just will one into being. Culture is formed by people and their relationships to one another. It’s built up over time through action, not decrees from leadership.

So, what happens when this solid foundation is taken away? How should public servants maintain their integrity throughout the turmoil?

To build resilience, public servants need to do the work of examining what constitutes right and ethical action. Each circumstance is unique, but these steps offer a way of examining the situation, navigating a path through the uncertainty and finding clarity of purpose.

1 Identify the good we are actually seeking

While the modern world offers an ethically fraught landscape, it isn’t a new phenomenon. Aristotle pointed out the same in thing in ancient Athens, cautioning that ethics isn’t an exact science. It’s not possible to create a comprehensive list of rules spelling out the ‘right’ in all situations.

We need to identify and keep the larger good in view. This will help us determine the right course of action in each circumstance. Aristotle counsels us to rely on virtues like courage, kindness, generosity and moderation to guide our decisions. Practical wisdom, according to Aristotle, is a continuous process of re-assessment, where we build on our understanding and experience.

2 Prioritise those who are disadvantaged

We often think our systems and services in Australia are available to all, but in practice we aren’t as open as many would like to believe. If we want a just society, where everyone can participate, regardless of race, gender, culture or class, we need to place fairness at the heart of everything we do. This is the demand of egalitarian philosophers like John Rawls. He would argue that institutions have a moral obligation to address inequality through their procedures and processes; to devote extra resources to the most disadvantaged people in society and prioritising access to the most vulnerable.

3 Consider how to make the biggest impact

Utilitarianism aims to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But it’s not as simple as just reaching as many citizens as possible with a program or service. For the philosopher Peter Singer this places an ethical requirement on us to reduce avoidable pain and suffering. And John Stuart Mill,  one of the original utilitarians (and incidentally, the person who coined the phrase ‘machinery of government’), argued we should maximise outcomes for the community at large. This forces us to confront difficult questions, like whether it is better to undertake challenging early intervention work on a social problem or simply treat the symptoms through our health and justice systems.

Grappling with moral responsibility requires fortitude. As does maintaining integrity during times of upheaval. It is hard but rewarding work. Those who take up the challenge may be rewarded with replenished motivation and a renewed sense of purpose – and the ability to wade back into the river with confidence.

*Vanessa Pigrum is the chief executive of Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership, an independent, not-for-profit organisation dedicated to developing the critical reasoning and ethical decision-making skills of Australia’s leaders.


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