Study Group Portrait (archived)

(archived from the original EGPA PSG VII Website, hosted by KU Leuven)


The Study Group on Ethics and Integrity of Governance brings together academics and practitioners interested in the ethical dimension of administration and organisation. The group’s mission is to establish a long-term network aimed at stimulating research on public sector integrity and ethics in Europe. The Study Group was launched at the 2003 EGPA Annual Conference and involved on average 40 participants in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 sessions. The aim of these annual sessions is to present an overview of European research on ethics and integrity of governance with relevance for the practice of European governance and government and to provide an opportunity for researchers in this field to exchange and develop ideas.

This introductory text summarises the focus of interest as well as the five main aims of the Study Group. It also provides a brief overview of the intended output and activities of the Study Group.

1. Focus of interest

The range of issues that can be covered by those participating in the study group is broad. Concepts such as ethics, integrity and corruption cover a variety of phenomena. In order to clarify the subject of the study group, we now briefly define those central concepts. Although we realise that this set of definitions is contestable and open for discussion, we hope the descriptions show what kinds of subjects will be the focus of interest of the study group.

Public integrity denotes the quality of acting in accordance with the moral values, norms and rules accepted by the body politic and the public. Ethics might be defined as the collection of values and norms, functio­ning as standards or yardsticks for asses­sing the integrity of one’s conduct. The moral nature of these principles refers to what is judged as right, just, or good (conduct). Values are principles or standards of behaviour that should have a certain weight in choice of action (what is good to do or bad to omit doing). Norms state what is morally correct behaviour in a certain situation. Together, values and norms guide the choice of action and provide a moral basis for justifying or evaluating what we do.

Several integrity violations or forms of public miscon­duct can be distinguished: corruption including bribing, nepotism, cronyism, patronage; fraud and theft; conflict of interest through assets, jobs, gifts; manipulation of information; discrimination and sexual harassment; improper methods for noble causes (using immoral means to achieve moral ends); the waste and abuse of resources; and private time miscon­duct. Thus, corruption as ‘the abuse of public office for private gain’ is a specific type of violation against the moral norms and values for political and administrati­ve behaviour. This is then limited to a particular kind of illegal behaviour. There are also broader interpretations of “corruption,” which conceive of it as a synonym for all or almost all of the mentioned violations of the moral norms and values. Both conceptions of corruption are present in the international discussion.

The study group aims to cover the whole field that is implied by the three concepts of “integrity,” “ethics” and “corruption,” all in the context of public administration. As a matter of example we mention four of the most topical issues.

First, attention will of course be paid to “corruption,” both in its narrow and in its broad sense. Research shows that a conglomerate of social, economic, political, organisational and individual causal factors are important to explain cases of public corruption and fraud in a country. The study group will build on this research, particularly focusing on the European context and on corruption in public administration (rather than in politics per se).

Second, at least as much emphasis will be put on more morally dubious situations. These have been described as “ethical dilemmas,” which require extensive and skilled ethical decision making to reach a decision that is morally acceptable. With the discretion of civil servants growing (due to i.a. New Public Management reforms), the number of instances in which civil servants are confronted with such ethical dilemmas clearly also increases. The interest in the academic literature for these “grey zones between ethical and unethical behaviour” has been rather modest. The study group aims to develop theory to conceptualise these situations and look for the causal factors that influence the ethical decision making of civil servants facing such situations.

A related but more specific theme to be addressed in the research group concerns the many management instruments and strategies that have been developed to promote integrity and ethics and to curb corruption. Concepts and programs like National Integrity Systems (Transparency International), the Ethics Infrastructure (OECD) and the Framework for Integrity (World Bank) encompass numerous methods and instruments for ethics or integrity management. Their success seems to depend on the characteristics of the actors involved and on the environment they operate in. As is often stated, there is not one concept and program of good governance for all countries and organisations, there is no “one right way”. However, scientific research into the effects of instruments and institutions on ethics and integrity (with due attention to the context) is scarce.

A fourth topical issue to be addressed concerns the public-private dimension. The academic worlds of public ethics and business ethics are very much separated. This is regrettable for at least two reasons. The obvious one is that the two (sub)-disciplines could learn from each other’s concepts, theories and research. The second reason is that the intensification of the relationship between the public and private sector (see e.g. PPP) and the intermingling of concepts, instruments and institutions is often held responsible for integrity problems. Part of our interest is focused on this ‘public-private interface’ and therefore we named the study group ‘Ethics and Integrity of Governance.’ Although we obviously focus on public administration, we hope to profit from research based on a broader ‘governance’ perspective.

The above mentioned issues are just a few of the most topical issues that can be addressed in the study group. They can be studied at all traditional levels of analysis, as exemplified by the list of potential research questions and themes below.

  • At the individual level, some research has been done into ethical decision-making and unethical behaviour of civil servants. Contributions to the study group can build on this work or expand on it.
  • At the organisational level, pressing issues are situated. What is organisational integrity and what factors protect or damage that integrity? What is the impact of the New Public Management reforms on public sector ethics? Does the introduction of private sector management techniques genuinely change public values? What is the impact of the opinions and behaviour of top public servants on the ethics of those they manage? What are the downsides of anti-corruption policies?
  • At the national level, a number of traditional comparative issues can be raised. What are the important differences in public sector ethics between the European countries and how can these be explained? Does the often made distinction between a “clean” Northern Europe and a “less clean” South hold empirically? If so, what explains the distinction? Is there a significant difference with regards to public sector ethics between the transitional countries in Eastern Europe and the Western European countries? What are “best practices” in public sector ethics and can these be transferred from one country to another?
  • Empirical research on a genuinely supra-national level remains very limited and is of course a big challenge. Is there a European approach to public sector ethics? What are the differences between Europe and the US and how can we account for these differences? What is the importance of integrity policies and institutions in the context of the developing world? Etc.

2. Aims

The study group has five aims:

1. To establish a European network on public sector ethics and integrity.

Since its creation in September 2003, the study group established a fairly stable network with over 20 papers at each of the annual EGPA conferences, an average attendance of over 40 people at the Study Group sessions (a healthy mixture of loyal participants and “new blood”) and an emaillist with 280 members from over 25 countries. The aim is to maintain and expand this network and to stimulate cooperation around specific projects within this network.

The network also explictly welcomes young researchers and PhD students and invites them to presents drafts of their work in an open, friendly environment as a way to receive feedback from experts from across Europe.

2. To set up a systematic and close co-operation with other networks both within and outside Europe.

The Study Group has actively sought cooperation with other networks within and outside Europe. Most notable was the co-operation with the ASPA Section on Ethics, which reached a climax in the jointly organised the 2005 Transatlantic Dialogue in Leuven in June 2005 and the 2009 Global Dialogue in Amsterdam. To add a formal link between both organisations, one member of the Study Group management is a member of the executive committee of the ASPA ethics section. Co-operation with other international networks (e.g. Transparency International, International Institute for Public Integrity) and international organisations (e.g. OECD, World Bank) is sought through personal invitations of network members to the Study Group’s events.

3. To establish “public ethics and integrity” as an important area of public administration research in Europe.

This third aim is the intellectual counterpart of the previous two. Bringing people together and establishing an international network will only generate long-term benefits, when they share a common subject matter, a common ultimate goal. This way, the network can become a genuine community of specialists that act as a critical peer-group for new contributions. This can then provide the context for a cumulative body of research that replaces the anecdotal and very general contributions that still abound in this field.

In the US, “public sector ethics” or “administrative ethics” has developed during the past three decades as a genuine sub-discipline of public administration. It has its own textbooks, courses, journal (“Public Integrity”) and expert-networks (e.g. the ASPA ethics section). All these efforts clearly increased both the quality and the quantity of the research in this area. It is towards the development of such a genuine sub-discipline in the European context that the study group aims to contribute. The intellectual work that has been done in the US will undoubtedly be very inspiring, but the challenge will be to develop conceptual frameworks that are adapted to the specifics of the diverse European context.

4. To provide research-based advice to practitioners and stimulate the dialogue between academics and practitioners.

The focus of the study group will be on theory-development and empirical research that satisfies the basic criteria for social science research. This does not imply that the group will produce arcane knowledge for a small academic audience. On the contrary, inspired by the recent “evidence-based policy making” movement, we contend that good, systematic social science research can generate useful practical advice. The focus on research-based advice does imply, however, that the study group aims to avoid the presentation of general slogans or “doctrines”, without well-developed empirical or theoretical support.

5. To stimulate and facilitate comparative international research projects between participating researchers, using the opportunities available (e.g. European funding)

It is hoped that the study group will provide the contacts and networking opportunities that would stimulate the development of teams of researchers who would apply for European and other international research funding.

3. Activities and output

3.1. Output

In recent years, the Study Group has produced a number of edited volumes. The Study Group will continue a strategy of regular publications. More information on publications

3.2. Meetings

3.2.1. Annual meetings at the EGPA conference

The study group Ethics and integrity met already several times at the annual meetings of EGPA. These meetings had an average attendance of about 40 participants and each time around 20 papers were presented. This meetings will of course continue in the following years.

3.2.2. Special meetings

The study group has also co-organised several meetings on ethics and integrity of governance.

In June 2005, the Study Group co-organised a conference “Ethics and Integrity of Governance Conference” in Leuven, Belgium with the Section on Ethics of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA). The conference was subtitled “The First Transatlantic Dialogue” and included 122 participants from 28 different countries. Over the course of three days Conference attendees discussed and debated topics in five thematic workshops: Concepts and Theories; the Ethical Administrator; Integrity and Ethics Management; New Developments and the Ethics of Governance; and the Dark Side of Ethics. A plenary practicioners’ panel and research panel provided a more general overview of what has been achieved and what still begs for solutions. A detailed listing of the presentations and the papers introduced there can be found at the conference website.

In June 2007, a Transatlantic Workshop on Ethics and Integrity of Governance took place in the US, Washington DC. The conference theme was “New Concepts, Theories and Methods in the Study of Ethics and Integrity of Governance”.

In May 2009, a conference ‘Governing good and governing well’: The first global dialogue on ethical and effective governance was organised in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The conference included about 125 participants from 30 different countries. Two questions formed a starting point for the conference: Can government be both ethical and effective? Or does one come at the expense of the other? The conference was organised around six thematic workshops: Views on Good Governance; Systems and Institutions Promoting Good Governance; Citizenship and Ethical and Effective Governance; Ethics and Effectiveness in Performance Measurement; Where Public Meets Private and Organizational Misbehavior.