Ethics and Human Interface:

18. Concept of public service; Philosophical basis of governance and probity

IAS Exam preparation

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Public Service

  • There are different meanings to the term public service. The first meaning of “public service” refers, for instance, to the form of services generally rendered by the governments – electricity, healthcare, maintenance of law and order, urban and rural infrastructures, etc. – where quality, availability and reliability of resources are prime requirements for effectiveness. Public services are distributed in this way and form the interaction between the individual and regulatory authorities, products and services rendered by government institutions to the people.
  • Public service is a benefit that the government offers to its people. A government or its departments offers or supports services and public service is designed to help people instead of making a profit.
  • Public service may often have a few characteristics of a public good that is being non-rivalrous and non-excludable i.e. individuals cannot be effectively refrained from using those public services and wherein the use by one individual does not reduce availability to others), but in most cases public services are services.
  • The second meaning of public service refers to all the public functionaries such as all those working in the army as well as the judiciary and the executive.


  • Probity in a given method is evidence of ethical behaviour. Intelligence, uprightness and honesty define probity. The protection of probity requires more than merely prohibiting unethical or deceptive behaviour by government officials and departments. It includes the implementation of values of the public sector, such as fairness, accountability and transparency.
  • Probity is often called incorruptible. However, probity goes beyond deception, as it is defined by universal ideals such as moral and social principles. It is also seen as strict compliance with a code of ethics founded on relentless justice, especially in business (monetary) matters and outside the rule.
  • Ensuring probity in public services is part of every public official’s duty to adopt processes, practices and behaviour that enhance and promote public service values.

Probity in Governance

  • Apart from traditional civil service values of efficiency, integrity, accountability and patriotism, public servants need to instil and adopt ethical and moral values, including integrity in public life, compassion for the disrupted, respect for human rights and a commitment to their welfare.
  • Probity Governance is an important and necessary condition for an efficient governance structure and for socio-economic growth. The absence of corruption is an essential prerequisite for ensuring probity in governance. The other requirements are effective laws, rules and regulations that cover every aspect of public life and, more importantly, their effective and fair application.

Probity Principles

  • There are a few generally accepted probity principles that serve to maintain the integrity of a process. These are:
  • Accountability: It is the responsibility to explain or take account of the exercise of the duties. In order to show their practices and decisions, the government should have the necessary mechanisms in place.
  • Transparency: The process should be as open as possible so that all parties will believe in the results. Open and clear systems often reduce the possibility of fraud and corruption and risk.
  • Confidentiality: All officials are under a general confidentiality obligation towards their employer as a condition of employment. Any advisors to government, leaders and all other outside parties who are privy to information that is economically important shall provide the government with the specific agreement to confidential such material.
  • Management of Conflicts of Interest: A conflict of interest arises where an individual associated with the process is, through their particular associations or circumstances, influenced, or perceived to be influenced, to obtain an unfair advantage for him or herself or another party. Conflicts of interest are often unavoidable. However, provided they are identified early and dealt with effectively, they need not prejudice the process.

    It is crucial to understand that those participating in the process recognize how a conflict of interest occurs and their obligation for documenting disputes, to ensure that they handle disputes properly, and to provide proper recording of the way in which they are dealt with. Policies should be established at the outset to deal with potential conflicts of interest instead of attempting to manage these problems on an ad hoc basis.

Philosophical Basis of Governance and Probity

  • The ethical concerns of governance have been underscored widely in Indian scriptures and other treatises such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagvad Gita, Buddha Charita, Arthashastra, Panchatantra, Manusmriti, Hitopadesh etc. Also the maxims on ethical governance were provided by the Chinese philosophers such as Lao Tse, Confucius and Mencius.
    In the Western philosophy, there are three eminent schools of ethics.
  • The first, inspired by Aristotle, holds that virtues (such as justice, charity and generosity) are dispositions to act in ways that benefit the possessor of these virtues and the society of which he is a part.
    The second, subscribed to mainly by Immanual Kant, makes the concept of duty central to morality: human beings are bound, from knowledge of their duty as rational beings, to obey the categorical imperative to respect otl1er rational beings with whom they interact.
  • The third is the utilitarian viewpoint that asserts that the guiding principle of conduct should be the greatest happiness (or benefit) of tl1e greatest number.

Western philosophy, whether in a ruler or a democracy, contains several legal concepts. The authors of Plato , Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Penn and Edmund Burke, among others, have conveyed these concerns.
To institutional ethics the meaning of · wisdom is that the public government is the “guardian” of the society. Therefore, people’s faith is to be honored and not violated.

Two crucial questions raised in this context are “why should guardians be guarded? And “Who guards the guardian?” The administrators need to be guarded against their tendency to misconceive public interest, promote self-interest, indulge in corruption and cause subversion of national interest. And they need to be guarded by the external institutions such as the judiciary, legislature, political executive, media and civil society, organisations. These various modes of control become instruments of accountability.

The current discipline of public administration accords primacy to the ‘values’ of equity, justice, humanism, human rights, gender equality and compassion. The movement of Good Governance, initiated by the World Bank in 1992, lays stress on the ethical and moral conduct of administrators. While the New Pubic Management movement is more concerned with administrative effectiveness, the New Public Administration focuses on administrative ethics in its broader manifestation. Both the movements are complementary to each other.

The complementarity with the focus is more true today than it was a hundred years ago when science management was rising in the industrial world, and the concept of administrative responsibility was accepted strongly. During the U.S. Presidency of John Kennedy (1961-1963) had stated: “No government responsibility is more fundamental than an obligation to maintain up higher ethical standards.”

Another ethical guideline to bureaucratic behaviour was the perfect bureaucracy architecture, as Max Weber suggested. Weber (1947) noted: it is a matter of principle in the rational type that administrative staff should be totally separated from ownership of production and administration resources. Of the non-human resources of production and administration, officers, staff and workers attached to the administrative staff themselves do not have.

Objective of Probity in Governance

  • To ensure accountability in governance;
  • To maintain integrity in public services;
  • To ensure compliance with processes;
  • To preserve public confidence in Government processes;
  • To avoid the potential for misconduct, fraud and corruption.

Practice question:

  1. What do you understand by the terms ‘governance’, ‘good governance’ and ‘ethical governance’? (2016)
  2. Effective utilization of public funds is crucial to meet development goals. Critically examine the reasons for under-utilization and mis-utilization of public funds and their implications.
  3. What do you understand by probity in governance? Based on your understanding of the term, suggest measures for ensuring probity in government.
  4. Increased national wealth did not result in equitable distribution of its benefits. It has created only some “enclaves of modernity and prosperity for a small minority at the cost of the majority.” Justify.
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