"Every society exhibits certain features that encourage and foster official misconduct.
...Unless they are tackled, corruption is likely to persist."


Public Trust:

Fact or way of life?

by Gerald Calden
Dr. Calden is professor of Public Administration, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.



Offensive behaviour by public  officials long has been taken for  granted. Anyone put into a  position of exercising power and commanding public obedience is tempted to use public office for personal gain and advantage. Deviant conduct has been expected and was summed up by Lord Acton over a century ago: ‘‘Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’’ This century has seen wicked dictators who showed no shame or remorse and actually enjoyed the idea that their evil deeds would be known forever. Long ago, Machiavelli was accused of rationalizing, if not justifying, objectionable public conduct when he offered sage advice to princes on how to improve their image, enrich themselves, increase their power, and postpone the fading of their light by cunning realpolitik, deception, and unsavory actions. Why take on the burdens of public leadership if there were no personal advantages or compensating rewards? Guilt about public misconduct is relatively recent — at least the guilt that denies and hides it.

Fortunately for civilization, the exploitation of public office has not been the inevitable fate of mankind. People seek public office for nobler causes than pure self-interest and try to rule objectively. They recognize conduct unbecoming public office, legislate against it, and drive it underground with harsh prosecution of offenders. So much has the pendulum swung that, in some countries, misuse and abuse of office are considered shameful, spelling the end of any further public career with disgrace lasting beyond the grave. A higher standard of conduct can be expected, inculcated, and practiced that adds stature to public office, strengthens loyalty between rulers and ruled, and makes government work in the interests of all, not just a privileged few. It is not asking too much of mere mortals to act properly.

Yet, misuse and abuse of public office persist everywhere, perhaps because the wrong people get into office or, maybe, when the right people do, they find the exercise of power too easy to manipulate. If every exercise of power is tainted with evil, if power degrades and demoralizes those who exercise it, if office-holders come to love power for its own sake, if nobody at all can be entrusted with power, then no more need be said beyond Lord Acton’s dictum.

However, misconduct comes in too many forms to permit such easy generalization, everything from treason and kleptocracy to misuse of perquisites and bias, from abuse of coercive power and parasitism to junkets and misuse of the mails. There is high- and low-level misconduct. There are endemic, pervasive forms and isolated, infrequent ones. Misconduct may be rare or frequent, brazen or hidden, disruptive or trivial, tolerated or intolerable (like Boss Tweed’s distinction between honest and dishonest graft).

Public misconduct undoubtedly exists in all countries, at every level of government, and in the delivery of all scarce public goods and services. It is deeply rooted, cancerous, infectious, and impossible to eradicate because controls tend to be formal, superficial, temporary, and even counterproductive. Yet, it can be contained within acceptable limits through political will, democratic ethos, inculcation of personal honesty and integrity, and effective enforcement of commonly agreed upon public ethics. Unless so contained, public misconduct leads sooner or later to a breakdown of shared concerns and results in reliance on coercion.

Translating commonly agreed upon public ethics into specific codes capable of enforcement always has been a challenge. Religious orders, secret societies, military commands, scholars, and professional bodies all have tried, as have civil governments. Even though politics commonly has been viewed as the most unprincipled of human pursuits, codes of conduct have evolved to regulate international relations, armed conflicts among states, obligations between politicians and officials, the execution of civil laws, and the conduct of public professionals.

Alongside have grown legal definitions, and enforcement machinery has been strengthened, possibly always one step behind ingenious rascals. However, standards differ among societies. There is consistency only to a point and, even within that area, enforcement differs as well. For all, public misconduct is a fact of life, but is it a way of life, too? Is it really true that all office-seekers have to be a little crooked to succeed?

Outside of a select group of countries, the overwhelming answer appears to be affirmative. A significant portion of public officials around the globe fail to pursue the common good or live up to the moral standards expected of them. Public misconduct is the norm. Yet, it also is true that some of their colleagues do behave themselves, some public bodies are more trustworthy, and some cultures exhibit higher standards of integrity.

Why can they hold steadfast while others lack the discipline to resist temptation? First, there are ideologies that endorse public misconduct or prevent remedial action. There are nihilistic ideologies whose exponents believe themselves above and beyond morality. Often, there are religious doctrines which proclaim that all is divinely determined, including public wrongdoing, and nothing can be done since it is beyond human control. Then, there are those who believe that, in a righteous case, the means justify the ends — apparently any means to justify their particular ends. Life is about winning, if need be at the expense of others, and winning has less to do with hard work and frugality than with connections, powerful patrons, and the skillful exploitation of office. In short, getting there is the name of the game. Morality is an ill-afforded luxury and the province of the weak who do not have what it takes to get there.


Deprivation makes any society particularly vulnerable, but any form of scarcity induces public misconduct. Without unfulfilled demand, suppliers could not command any additional price and potential purchasers would not seek unfair access. Any temporary shortage, as even the world’s most prosperous countries learned during the Arab oil embargo in the 1970’s, brings out the best and worst in people. With prolonged scarcity, failure to gain access means certain deprivation and possibly ruin. Suppliers squeeze the desperately needy. In poor societies where governments can not provide sufficient public goods and services, maintain public facilities, or pay their employees a decent wage, there is a mad scramble to obtain whatever is going to make up for underpayments. Planning and regulation to ensure greater access and fairer distribution distort market conditions, setting in motion ‘‘corrective’’ underground arrangements, illegal transactions, and black markets aggravated by public monopolization.

Public officials are vulnerable because they make decisions that determine in large part the personal fortunes of everyone affected by them. The more important their power, the more worthwhile it is to influence them. Where public office is confined to a narrow, unrepresentative elite, extraordinary means have to be employed to enlarge vision and obtain concessions. Whenever large numbers of people are excluded from public life and beholden to autocratic, discretionary rule — as in military dictatorships, theocracies, and single-party regimes — extra-legal ways have to be found to influence public decisions and to overcome the privatization of politics. Whenever officials indulge in misconduct, the public also believes it can do so. If the government lies, cheats, and steals, so will the public.

Even if public officials resolve to behave themselves, they often are indebted or compromised when they take office. They are committed to rewarding friends or paying back favors rendered and are expected by supporters and opponents alike to use their office for partisan advantage. They are not disinterested or likely to act evenhandedly. Faulty technology and administrative systems enable them to cover up their misconduct, evade detection, and escape investigation. Insiders can exploit legal loopholes known only to themselves. The ingenious and the unscrupulous take advantage of any openings and invent their own. Finally, the root source of misconduct has to be found in defects of human character; it is inherent in the human condition.

In short, any form of interaction in the public arena can be distorted for personal gain. Yet, while opportunities exist everywhere, the extent of misconduct varies widely among individuals, public agencies, cultures, geographical regions, and international organizations. Clearly, a difference does exist when public officials have a deservedly high reputation and adequate compensation, compete in painstaking selection processes, conduct their business openly, and respect the requirements of public accountability.

Contributing factors to misconduct may be offset by strong countervailing factors. These include open, representative government, an affluent economy, national identification and loyalty, redistributive taxation and public welfare, a strong civic culture, a jealously guarded tradition of public service, legal-rational norms, competent public administration, professional integrity, and public intolerance of official misconduct.

The moral choices confronting public officials are quite different. In corrupted societies, they have to make a personal commitment to resist joining in common practices, thereby forgoing personal benefits which may make all the difference between a comfortable and a hard life. In uncorrupted societies, doing the right thing is much easier. Public officials have to opt for deviant behavior, hide their wrongdoing, and face the penalties should they be caught. Which way they choose determines whether public misconduct will be enlarged or reduced.

Clearly, public officials who indulge in misconduct benefit until caught and penalized. For them, misconduct is profitable. They can accumulate power and exercise it with fewer restrictions. They can live exceptionally privileged, sheltered lives and amass huge personal fortunes. They can preserve themselves in office and pre-determine succession, perhaps even maintaining a dynasty. They can do all the things they want to do and prevent others from achieving anything at all. The advantages in status, wealth, and power are quite clear.

These gains usually are made at somebody else’s expense, although the losers may never realize that they have been denied what should have been theirs. The malfactors display a contempt for other people, no matter how minor or seemingly innocent their improprieties, and such contempt contains within it the seeds of megalomania that eventually blossoms into grosser acts. Their misconduct gives comfort to social pathologies that divide, destabilize, and desensitize.


Official misconduct is difficult to control. It is a complex problem involving numerous factors and taking many different forms. No public official is immune. Yet, control has been achieved in some countries, and how it has been done is no mystery. Around the world, there are conferences and workshops at which experts exchange ideas and experiences on how to define, combat, and contain public misconduct, particularly corruption. For example, the Fourth International Anti-Corruption Conference, held in Sydney, Australia, in November, 1989, was attended by representatives of every geographical region. Anti-corruption campaigns go beyond techniques of identifying forms of public misconduct, outlawing them, and investigating and prosecuting suspects. They now involve the entire society, not just law enforcement agencies.

An obvious starting place is an end to all dirty tricks in politics and the creation of an ethos whereby politicians, public officials, and party functionaries not only are fair and honest themselves, but also take a dim view of public misconduct in any shape or form. Political leaders have to set a good example. No favoritism in the prosecution of wrongdoing should be tolerated and no double standards prevail. Exemplary public conduct is necessary for the respect and confidence people place in government. Unless it occurs at the top, one can not expect to have good standards at lower levels.

Political will needs constant pushing and prodding by a watchful public intolerant of misconduct and vigilant in safekeeping official integrity and propriety. For this, the public should know what constitutes misconduct and where to go for assistance in combating it. Education begins at home, then continues at school and other major socializing institutions, and continually is reinforced through the mass media. People are particularly sensitive when misconduct is open and has clear detrimental effects, as it does in health and safety, taxation, criminal justice, land ownership, and education. In these areas, public opinion is easiest to rally. Apathy can be offset by self-appointed watchdog bodies devoted to clean government, which have to plug away until they capture attention. Recent events in the Eastern Bloc show how the moral dignity of just a few can expose the rottenness of an entire corrupted system and rally support for reform.

Public misconduct is uneven. Some areas of government are more prone to it than others simply because they exercise the greatest influence over public decisions. Key policymakers always are under heavy pressures to bend. Temptations also are great for any officials who handle large sums of money, have dealings with private business, or tackle illegal goods and services. Possibly, the prime target is law enforcement. This implies that the law must be upheld; that everybody should have equal access to it; that there must be uniform, fearless, unprejudiced enforcement; and that the public eventually will trust and identify with enforcement agencies. These achievements will do much to clean up the rest of government and keep all other public officials honest.

Official codes of ethics should be drawn up and enforced, but integrity only can be safeguarded if able and virtuous people are attracted to public service. Moreover, compensation must be sufficient so that they do not feel obliged to resort to corruption to sustain a standard of living compatible to their status and rank in society. Furthermore, peer pressures to protect public service image and reputation by suppressing revelations of internal wrongdoing should be offset by special protective measures for whistleblowers who risk their careers, and sometimes their lives, by daring to expose misconduct. At the same time, however, the wrongfully accused should be shielded from malicious charges and personal vindictiveness.

Every society exhibits certain features that encourage and foster official misconduct. Because they are embedded in the culture, they are not going to be changed quickly or easily. They usually swamp political will, public pressure, and ethics, nullifying their intentions. Unless they are tackled, corruption is likely to persist. It takes generations to overcome religious doctrines, excessive demands, gross inequality, social over-regulation, kinship loyalties, the absence of legal-rational norms, and all the other deep-seated factors that contribute to corruption.

A start has to be made somewhere, the initial steps taken and consolidated, momentum generated, and optimism stimulated. The task is overwhelming, yet feasible. Workable strategies and tactics are available. Suitable institutional mechanisms can be assembled quickly. Even with the best will, however, misconduct is too virile, contagious, widespread, and costly to treat for it to be eliminated entirely. At best, it can be contained and minimized, reduced from a way of life to a fact of life, and driven from intolerable to tolerable forms. If that were achieved, it would be a day for rejoicing.

Courtesy: USA Today, July 1990