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The Question of Ethics in the Public Sector. Discourse and Praxis

Jorge Etkin

Ethics in public management is examined from the perspective of a set of social values. The lack of ethics is considered as a function of authoritarian forms of government and of submission to the judicial power. The relationship between actors, victims, accomplices and providers is described and some proposals are offered for a reappraisal of the ethics situation and for education in this field.

Ethical principles and the values that sustain them are not the product of circumstance, but essential elements existing prior to the experience; they are an end to themselves. Action adhering to these values makes social coexistence possible, based on equity, liberty, solidarity, justice and dignity.

Evaluating the conduct of public agents and the functioning of the state structure in terms of ethics can be carried out according to the following: the ethical vacuum, where decision-makers do not answer for their actions and there is impunity as to same; the ethical duality, where an idea is predicated but at the same time ignored or counteracted in practice, and minimal ethics of a reactive nature, based on convenience.

In the case of the public sector, an analysis of the ethical question requires taking into account the social, economic and political environment in which the group in power conducts itself. In this context, it is possible to identify the conditions where ethical deviations and abuse of power may take place. Some realities pertaining to state power may be the basis for abuse of power and immoral government acts, and may be turning the state structure into an immoral environment.

Some of the conditions within which the lack of ethics tend to exist are authoritarian forms of government; the lack of training among public agents; impunity of public officials; power concentration structures; governmental dependence on interest groups; influence of the party in power on public policy decision-making; complicated and obscure judicial forms; lack of transparency in government acts; absence of user and beneficiary representatives in public services; slow and onerous judicial processes, and electoral pressure.

The scope of ethics transcends the individual commitment to inlcude public structural elements. In this complex network of relations, account must be taken of public officials who make inadequate use of power; societies that try to take advantage of the strength of the state structure and of destructive workings set up in the state structure, where members of the in-group act unlawfully as part of a political or economic scheme.

If the question of ethics is to be examined, the destructive workings that have become ensconced on the basis of power relations must be confronted. A valid proposal for this purpose is to return to basic values, while considering the following factors: political will; transparency; education based on principles, values, responsibility and respect for rights, and the development of participational and representational forms to respond to social interests and needs.

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