The Ethical Public Servant

The article BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION: The Bane of Our Country by Dr. Daya Hewapathirane  prompted me to go deeper into this issue in the public sector.  I must also note that corruption is not confined to the public sector and that it prevails in the private sector too.  It is also the private sector and private citizens who promote graft as it takes two to tango by being the giver of bribes in exchange for favors.

Yet, I refuse to believe that the entire public sector is corrupt.  There are many ethical, dedicated and loyal employees in the public sector who do an honest job of work.  I have come across them be it in the health care, education, banking, port and other sectors.

Unfortunately, the public sector is tainted with the image of being corrupt and lazy.  Of course certain public sector departments are prone to corruption much more than others and these problems have to be rooted out with great political will and courage.

Whatever it is, this is a very complex issue with implications on poverty, status and power.  Yet, if Sri Lanka is to become a successful nation where every citizen can live with fairness, dignity, justice and have a good quality of life, we need to chip away at getting to the root cause and weed it out.

Maslow’s Story

I am optimist when it comes to human beings.  I believe most people are initially driven to corruption out of necessity.  The income in the public sector may not afford many the money required to lead a dignified middle class life.

We only need to look at the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs here.  If people’s basic physiological needs for food and shelter are not met, by hook or by crook they will take it from others.  As one moves up, a typical clerical employee of the government is higher on Maslow’s ladder and seeks to meet their esteem needs – the need to be a unique individual with self respect and to enjoy general esteem from others.

Unfortunately, today’s society judges people by what they have and if this judgment leads to our esteem, then we will measure it through money and material wealth.

This then leads many a good person to be tempted to take.  It makes it even easier as our politicians who come to power with not much end up amassing vast amounts of wealth in a matter of a few years in office.   So, with such poor examples of leaders, the public sector employees turn their own internal moral compass over and begin to take.

The public sector ploy is to provide poor service for what people need – be it solving a simple pension issue, clearing goods at the customs or providing an approval for a new venture.  Out of desperation, the public ends up paying to get better service.

As such, graft is now institutionalized in many government organizations.  There are systems and processes in place, not written in a manual, but might as well be.

Given this level of institutionalization and entrenchment, to reverse it will take time and a great political will and courage from the top, as well as a commitment and change from the bottom-up.

Our Selfish Nature

To add to this, the global capitalist ideology is intensely competitive and individualistic encouraging us to put self first.  Indeed in a deeper sense, for survival, humans are selfish, driven by the reptilian brain.  Fortunately, we also have a neo-cortex, the limbic brain which is the seat of compassion and positive emotions to balance the reptilian side which focuses on feeding, fighting, fleeing and reproducing according to writer, Karen Armstrong.  This allows us to reflect on the world and more so ourselves and to check those primitive reptilian impulses seeking status, power, control, territory and personal gain.  Meditating on these, we realize they need external material attachments which are fragile, fleeting and impermanent.

As such, being corrupt for survival at Maslow’s lowest level for food and shelter – I loathe to judge, but when one is corrupt to accumulate wealth for status and power for a few generations, I have an issue with.

Our own spiritual learning and culture has a foundation to bring out the limbic brain based on consideration for others – maître (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), muditha (sympathetic joy) and upeksha (even mindedness).  Meditating on these, we can overcome our selfish natures.  We realize that compassion is natural to human nature and the practice of pranayama (conscious breathing) and meditation helps us to curb our ego and have empathy towards others.

However, this practice takes commitment, discipline and a will to change and grow to a higher state of being.  If those corrupt public sector employees realize the personal benefits from such a practice not only to themselves, their health and wellbeing but also to their families, children, and the community, they may make this commitment to change.

As such, I believe we must also begin this process of transformation from the bottom up.

Training and Transformation

A national level initiative with all the public institutions can work towards this transformation.

For that, there must be a basic foundation of a vision, mission, values and objectives to work from.

Training should help participants see an intrinsic benefit to them first, in order to move them to be better human beings.   As such, there should be a focus on the following three pillars of the mind’s intelligences;

Spiritual Intelligence

The foundation is spiritual, not in the context of religion, but we all have an innate sense of spirituality and a moral compass that tells us what is right and wrong.  Our integrity, values, ethics arise from this core. Unfortunately, our society and the system have denigrated these in the interest of zero sum competition and a ‘survival to the fittest’ mentality, which is an antithesis to our own eastern philosophies.  People also get easily corrupted without this spiritual foundation.

Yet, the human can curb the reptilian instincts and transform through experiential training which includes meditation and reflective practices.

Emotional Intelligence

Our values, morals and ethics help us to behave in a certain way to become more emotionally aware of ourselves and others.  This intelligence is about managing our own emotions and other’s whether they are our own family, team members, staff or the public needing the service.

When we look after people who have less power than us in the way we respect them, listen to, appreciate and recognize them, we build self esteem which is the cornerstone of human performance.  Sadly, our traditional systems have been hierarchical and does not allow for initiative and creativity to take responsibility.  We have to build these processes into the workplace systems, the human resources processes and communications by training people experientially. This will demonstrate how vital they are to motivate and inspire people to be honest and do what needs to be done.  The limbic brain comes alive and our deep seated angers subside.

Logical and Rational Intelligence

Logic and rational thinking is crucial to finally meet our objectives, goals and targets.  This is our left brain at work to get the job done – sometimes at the cost of human relations.   Yet most of us, through modern methods of education are predisposed to weigh towards this linear way of thinking and acting.

Getting the job done balanced with managing emotions and that people are looked after based on a set of values and ethics leading them to feel what they do is meaningful, even if it seems the most mundane of jobs, people feel a sense of pride and organizations become more efficient and sustainable in the long run.

Can this be achieved ?

There are scores of examples both in Sri Lanka and overseas proving organizational success through meaningful work.  These successes are created first of all by the will of the leaders to change and walk the talk to embrace and balance the three pillars of the mind.  This is done through carefully designed interventions, training and coaching to suit the culture and the nature of the organization.

One maybe cynical about government organizations, but many public sector organizations have shown great success when there is a good balance.  Australia Post was one of the most troubled public sector organizations up to the 1980s, but with the will of the political leadership and a commitment to changing management styles and culture, they have become over the last 20 years, one of the most successful government business undertakings in the world.

Our own People’s Bank in the late 1990s transformed with political will and good leadership and fresh intake of people who turned the losing business into a profitable one in a matter of a few years.  When the political interference of the operation and its business was stopped for a number of years, it turned the cash flow of the bank around.

Political Will

Political will becomes an important aspect of changing the public sector.   As it is only with a commitment from the leaders that we can help to create a public sector that will truly serve the people and become sustainable at the same time, giving people a sense of pride of being a coveted public service official that was once an honor in the era past.

By changing the public sector, paying better salaries on par with the private sector, looking after their needs for growth and appreciation, we can build a nation of high esteem whose people’s dignities are cherished and protected, so not only a few, but everyone can benefit.

Helping people to become conscious of their conscience will help to make a slow change to give more than taking.  Once this ethos starts taking root and it is recognized, we will witness a sea change in the public sector to become honest, efficient and effective.  Most of all, the employees will have a sense of meaning and a pride for the work they do in serving the public in the spirit of Dhane.  That will further build their self esteem and give more power to building nation to be fair and just. This way, we will help to bridge the yawning gap of haves and have nots.

A recent book called The Spirit Level by Robert Wilkinson and Kate Pickett has clearly shown that equality makes for the most prosperous, healthiest and happiest nations.

I live in hope.  In the meantime, every time I am given chance, I am on my mission – urging people to look inward, reflect, meditate and be an accountable and a responsible citizen of this country and this planet.   That means, I have to put a mirror on myself too and I dare say, it is not easy !