Integrity in public life

If all goes according to plan, the office of the Integrity Commission, which will seek to hold public officials to standards consistent with the assurances they have given in their oaths to serve the Guyanese public, will be up and running very soon. Its Chairman, former Land Court judge Kumar Doraisami told this newspaper just over a week ago that the physical space the Integrity Commission will occupy would be ready in just a few weeks. He said too that efforts were being made to have a list of public officials who were required by law to declare their assets and to have them do so within a short period of time.

This is good news that should assuage some of the fears the populace has about corruption in public office. And when the commission actually begins its work, the hope is that it will help keep public officials accountable and that transparency will resonate in its actions.

Public integrity is vital to the success of nations. If elected governments squander public resources, the result is economic frailty in the country and the people suffer. Instances of this have been well documented around the world. Some glaring examples have been seen in Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Myanmar and North Korea, among others. However, inappropriate behaviour by public officials is not confined to elected representatives and wherever it exists, it places private interests above public service and bodes ill for the country at all levels. It is for these reasons that integrity commissions, sometimes called by other names, exist throughout the world.

In his book Public Integrity (Johns Hopkins University Press (October 30, 2001), J Patrick Dobel looks at probity in American public life and uses known examples, some historical, as well as fiction, drawing on British espionage writer John Le Carré’s clever prose to place responsibility where it should lie – at the feet of the public official. But the book does much more than that. It clearly defines that there are no grey areas where integrity is concerned and that there is some amount of nobility in holding public office. While power lends to temptation, public officials should be imbued with such good character and judiciousness that the decisions they make land on the right side of morality, otherwise they should resign. It really is that simple.

And because it is simply a matter of right and wrong, it is disappointing that the local Integrity Commission, as vital as it is to the country’s well-being, has not been in place for over 10 years. Furthermore, while the commission’s office and staff could be physically present soon, it is equally disappointing that there will be need for legislative amendments to ensure that the body functions as effectively as it should. But this is indeed the case as pointed out by Chairman Doraisami in February when he took his oath of office.

Requiring public officials to declare their assets is but a minuscule role of any public integrity commission. The practice of squirrelling away and secreting cash and assets have been honed to a fine art by those who seek to conceal their wrongdoings. And in today’s world where electronic transactions mean there is no paper trail, uncovering corruption will entail such resources that can follow such footprints in order to hold persons accountable.

A person of integrity is someone who is trustworthy and incorruptible. As much as citizens would like to believe that the persons who manage our country, city, towns and villages are above succumbing to bribery and fraud, and would always behave professionally and ethically, practical experience has shown otherwise. It would be naïve to assume, for example, that impropriety in public life began and ended with the much publicised and historic Watergate scandal which effectively brought down the US president Richard Nixon.

Scandals aside, corruption and fraud, which include influencing public procurement, embezzling public property, misusing confidential information and abusing power, are possibly the most destructive issues a country can face. Without strong institutions demanding integrity, transparency and accountability, they can remain embedded in governance. And while these reprehensible practices fatten the purses of a few, public resources dwindle and inequality and poverty are perpetuated.

In order to truly inculcate public integrity, the commission must be able to function at all levels starting with the national government and going all the way down to municipalities and village councils. One hopes that it will have such a mandate and that the commissioners will endeavour to really make a difference.

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