Ethics: The scarce item on the table
Ideally, nothing defines a public institution better than its underlying principles. To assess it, analysts objectively look further than the optics of its existence and operations to what it stands for. So, at the mention of the police for instance, what readily comes to mind is security or law and order beyond guns and batons; the school, intellect/skills beyond academic activities; the judiciary, justice beyond wigs, intricacies or the gavel; etc.
However in some institutions, it may be difficult to establish a nexus between optics and ethics, the former portraying the visible or tangible activities and features of an organization, with respect to its operations, practices and behaviours; and the latter representing its internal and external governing principles, values, standards, customs, etc.
Take for instance an institution whose underlying principle is public safety but which at the same time is committed to the goal of maximizing revenue generation through fines against violators of safety rules. While deterrents like fines can be effective in enforcing rules, a reduction in the number of incidents of fine should be a key performance indicator for this institution. On the other hand, increased incidents of safety offences – and consequently, fines – should be a pointer to the poor performance of its safety agenda.
In the public service, there are other instances in which mission clashes with vision, where goals are diverted, personalized or abandoned. In the course of our civil life as Nigerians, we may have come across officials who were noticeably disappointed that we complied with certain laws, rules or regulations which they enforced. They would rather we violate the law so as to face penalty or suffer extortion. This further exemplifies a disconnect between ethics, principles and practice.
However, in ethical organizations, the level of integration or agreement between optics and ethics of operation is usually high. One of the critical success factors of these organizations is ensuring a high level of professionalism across their facets and cadres. They keep the organizational values in motion and effect by setting and enforcing ethical standards for jobs and the business. With a high level of ethical governance, they shield their institution from negative culture invasion, while exporting good professional practices. Their activities and behavior are exhaustive and demonstrative of the scope of professionalism in their industry or service area, in terms of knowledge base, skills and ethics.
Apparently, the most insufficient component of professionalism in Nigeria is ethics; little wonder the manner in which things get done is seldom given required attention. So, it is easy for instance to award the status of a ‘super cop’ based on technical skills, with little or no consideration for ethical conduct on the job; or to hail a high-riser at the top rung of leadership without considering the propelling forces of nepotism, favoritism, cronyism, eye service, mediocrity or other pervasive unprofessional practices.
But no matter how an institution and its people circumvent the checkpoints of ethics, its ethical deficiencies will be evidenced by poor performance, simply because excellence is highly compromised when ethics is missing on the table of service.
The relegation of ethics to passivity in an institution usually begins with seeming negligible bad practices which eventually grow like a cancer and infect all its nooks and crannies, shaping its actual culture distinct from the desired one and negatively invading other cultures. Such institutions end up being actually defined by the lack or opposite of their avowed underlying principles and values.
So, gradually injustice replace justice; impunity replace accountability; opacity becloud transparency; equity is displaced by inequality or partiality; lawfulness gives way to lawlessness; mediocrity blunts excellence; favoritism overshadows meritocracy; summarily personal, parochial or group interests undermine public good – the overarching goal of public service.
Note must be taken that the uniform does not make an officer; the white collar does not make the professional; the boot does not make the soldier; the wig also does not make the judge; etc. In the same vein, the building does not make a strong institution, neither does the document make the constitution, policy or ethical standards. Those are symbols and materials of authority, professionalism and responsibility that facilitate the actualization of desired behaviors in line with set standards and goals. They actually reflect or convey ethical expectations from their bearers. Optics must therefore conform with ethics.
To achieve and sustain the success of their institution and contribute substantially to the effective running and development of the polity, leaders must therefore drive an organizational culture founded on values which are anchored on the underlying principles of its establishment. They must institute and exemplify ethical standards that operationalize institutional values for the achievement of desired professional behaviors. Since values are best diffused from the top, leaders must build the kind of trust that energizes all members of their institution and the public to become ethical adherents and champions.