Ethics in Public Administration

India is today facing a crisis of values which is reflected in lack of concern for fellow human beings, a culture of greed and wide-spread Corruption which affects every facet of life.

The success or failure of activities of the state depends upon the proper execution of national plans and programmes. No plan, howsoever, good it may be, can be successful without clean, efficient and impartial Administration.

In contemporary times, we find lot of gap between theory and practice, belief and action which leads to hypocrisy in the conduct of public servants. Present day administration and politics widely acknowledge that corruption and power abuse weaken the nation.

Such an administration can be trustworthy only when it is based on deeply felt human values. Because, unless values are inculcated within human beings, their attitude and behaviour cannot be changed through superficial efforts.

Our national leaders were conscious of this, felt the need and had been emphasising on human values. C. Rajagopalchari has thus observed,

“National character is the keystone on which rests the fate and future of our public affairs, not this or that, ism. If the parched field of Indian policies and administration has to get fresh green life and grow, we need the monsoon of purity in national character. And the monsoon consists of little drops falling and uniting to make the rain. Individually purity of character alone can revive the parched fields.”

The need for inculcating values has also been emphasized in the parliamentary Standing committees and many other committees. If sound, positive and noble human values are nurtured within the process of human development, ethical behaviour tends to become natural, spontaneous and almost instinctive.

Swami Ranganathananda says that many people holding power and authority, are spiritually weak and therefore indulge in violence, selfishness and corruption. A good administrator should imbibe the values of Rajarishi as enunciated in Bhagavad Gita. When a person combines power with spiritual inwardness, authority with sensitiveness to ethical & human values that person becomes Rajarishi.

It is the primary responsibility of the State to promote an environment which supports high standard of conduct and moral values in society. This needs an all-encompassing approach, by imparting right kind of education to the children and youth in schools and colleges, by ensuring ethical conduct of persons working in public services including politicians and by creating an environment of honesty and trust for business and industry to thrive.

Former Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari, while delivering a lecture on ‘Private Ethics and Public Morality’, said that the ethical behaviour emanates from generally accepted norms of personal and social ethics and finds reflection in ideals to which the State subscribes.

The society sets standards reflective of the general moral conscience and incorporates them in laws for the state to implement them and dispense justice, and thus obtains legitimacy and allegiance of the body politic.

The Vice President expressed concern that the legal and administrative steps taken so far to improve ethical norms in the executive, the legislature and the judiciary are inadequate and called for more purposeful and result oriented approach.

The public services must set the example of high standard of conduct and ethical behaviour if the country is to make progress and develop. For this it is necessary that the State creates a suitable ethics infrastructure for public services to flourish and thrive. Most developed countries that are rated high on good governance index have created effective ethics infrastructure, including a Code of Values and Ethics for public servants, from which we can draw valuable lessons.

The importance of ethics in administration can be explained in the following manner:

  • To check the arbitrary actions of Civil Servants
  • To promote the sense of administrative responsibility
  • To establish and promote the good relations between the citizen and civil service
  • To preserve and promote social wellbeing, public interest, and common good
  • To control that part of administrative power and discretion which cannot be controlled by formal laws methods and procedures
  • To improve the efficiency and effectiveness of administrative process
  • To strengthen the legitimacy and credibility of public administration
  • To foster and maintain high morals among all categories of civil servants
  • To control corruption which has increased dramatically, mostly by political class.


Ethics in governance (Administrative ethics) has evolved over a long period of time and is influenced during its nurturance and growth by a variety of factors. These are as follows;

  • Historical factors – The long legacy of unethical practices in governance is likely to enhance the tolerance level for administrative immorality. Precedents and traditions set by the top administrators, ministers and legislators also play an important role.

 For instance, Colonial legacy of ICS is still reflected in the conduct of IAS, IPS officers such as red-tapism, apathy towards vulnerable sections etc. Similarly, Spoils System in USA vitiated the ethical milieu of the American Public Administration. This got changed when a disgruntled job seeker assassinated President Garfield in 1881. Garfield’s assassination spurred the process of civil service reforms in the USA with the establishment of US Civil Service Commission in 1883 in order to do away with Spoils system

  • Socio-cultural factors – The administrative class emerges from the society itself. Naturally, societal morality are likely to be reflected in the conduct of administrators.

Socio-religious institutions prevalent in the society are influential instruments of socialisation. If these institutions underscore honesty and ethics, the impact on the mind-set of citizens is likely to be highly positive and powerful.

For example, Protestant ethics mainly focuses on hard work, which has helped several Christian societies to enhance their per capita productivity. Similarly, Judaism has valued performance of physical labour by its followers, the Hindu and Islamic societies, on the other hand, have generally considered physical labour to be of lower rank than the mental work.

  • Legal-Judicial factors– A neatly formulated law, with a clear stress on the norms of fair conduct and honesty, is likely to distinguish chaff from grain in the ethical universe.

 In addition, an efficient and effective judiciary with fast-track justice system will prove to be a roadblock to immorality in public affairs. Conversely, a slow moving judiciary with a concern for letter rather than the spirit of law will dither and delay and even help the perpetrators of crimes by giving them leeway through prolonged trails and benefits of doubt.

  • Political factors– The political leadership is perhaps the single most potent influence on the mores and values of citizens. The administrative system cannot remain immune to the levels of political morality as can be seen in terms of Criminalisation of politics and politicisation of bureaucracy.

 If politicians act as authentic examples of integrity, as happens in the Scandinavian countries, the administrative system cannot remain immune to the levels of political morality. The behaviour of politicians has a demonstration effect on civil servants as can be seen in the conduct of civil servants in Scandinavian countries.

  • Economic factors– The level of economic development of a country is likely to have a positive correlation with the level of ethics in the governance system. A lower level of economic development may tempt the less privileged sections of society to forsake principles of honest conduct while fulfilling their basic needs of existence and security.

Similarly, with the advent of liberalising economic regime, there is a growing concern about following the norms of integrity in industry and trade on account of the international pressures. For instance, WTO nations are expected to follow integrity in trade transactions (Avoiding Dumping, financial support to domestic industries etc.) under WTO regime. Fred Riggs termed this, as an `exogenous’ inducements to administrative change.

It can be broadly summarised as following;

  • Integrity – An administrator would undertake an administrative action on the basis of honesty and not use his power, position and discretion to serve his personal interest and the illegitimate interests of other individuals or groups.
  • Legality and Rationality – An administrator will follow the law and rules that are framed to govern and guide various categories of policies and decisions.
  • Excellence – An administrator would ensure the highest standards of quality in administrative decisions and action and would not compromise with standards because of convenience or complacency.
  • Impartiality – It means acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving governments of different political parties and the general public equally well. Impartiality often requires public servants to refrain from opinions, positions or actions that demonstrate a bias toward or against a particular political programme.
  • NeutralityPolitical neutrality is crucial in a democratic setup for integrity the efficiency of administration. It means that the civil service should give free and frank advice to the government impartially. It also means the implementation of the decisions of the government by the civil servants faithfully whether such decisions were in consonance with their advice or not.
  • Dedication to public serviceSpirit of service and sacrifice is an essential ingredient of public services and public officials should feel inspired that they are working for a national cause. An attitude of dedication to the set goals of organisations should be an indispensable trait of the public officials.
  • Devotion to the duty – An administrator would be committed to his duties and perform his work with involvement, intelligence and dedication. This would entail a respect for time, punctuality and fulfilment of promises made. As Swami Vivekananda observed: “Every duty is holy and devotion to duty is the highest form of worship.” Work is considered not as a burden but as an opportunity to serve and constructively contribute to society.
  • Transparency – An administrator will make decisions and implement them in a transparent manner so that those affected by the decisions and wish to evaluate their rationale, will be able to understand the reasons behind such decisions.
  • Responsibility and accountability – An administrator would not hesitate to accept responsibility for his decisions and actions. He would hold himself morally responsible for his actions and for the use of his discretion while making decisions. Moreover, he would be willing to be held accountable to higher authorities of governance and even to the people who are the ultimate beneficiaries of his decisions and actions.
  • Responsiveness and Resilience – An administrator would respond effectively to the demands and challenges from the external as well as internal environment. He would adapt to environmental transformation and yet sustain the ethical norms of conduct.
  • Compassion – An administrator, without violating the prescribed laws and rules, would demonstrate compassion towards vulnerable sections of the society while using his discretion in making decisions.
  • Justice – Those responsible for formulation and execution of policies and decisions of governance would ensure that respect is shown to the principles of equality, equity, fairness, impartiality and objectivity and no special favours are doled out on the criteria of status position, power, gender, class, caste and wealth.
  • Maxim of Utilitarianism – While making and implementing policies and decisions, an administrator will ensure that the decisions lead to the greatest good (happiness, benefits) of the greatest number.
  • National Interest – Civil servants, while performing duties, would keep in view the impact of his action on his nation’s strength and prestige. Public officials from any country, while performing their official roles, have at the back of their mind a concern and respect for their nation.


The Committee on Standards in Public Life was sometimes referred to as Nolan Committee after its first Chairman, Lord Nolan. Its terms of reference were to “examine concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations for changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of respectability in public life.”

In 1997, the Committee’s terms of reference were extended by the Prime Minister Tony Blair “to review issues in relation to the funding of political parties, and to make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements”.

The Committee’s terms of reference were further clarified in a House of Lords to explain that the Committee’s remit means it “can examine issues relating to the ethical standards of the delivery of public services by private and voluntary sector organisations, paid for by public funds, even where those delivering the services have not been appointed or elected to public office.”

The Nolan Committee’s Seven Principles of ethical conduct The Committee has published Fourteen Reports so far. The First Report of the Committee, drew up the Seven Principles of Public Life as a restatement of the general principles of conduct underpinning public life, and stated that,

  • All public bodies should draw up Codes of Conduct incorporating the Seven Principles which are as follows;
  • Selflessness – Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.
  • Integrity – Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organizations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.
  • Objectivity – In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on objective criteria.
  • Accountability – Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.
  • Openness – Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.
  • Honesty – Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.
  • Leadership – Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.
  • Internal systems for maintaining standards should be supported by independent scrutiny
  • More needed to be done to promote and reinforce standards of conduct in public bodies, in particular through guidance and training, including induction training.

In present times, Governments and international agencies is drawing their attention to developing and maintaining high standards and values, ethics and conduct in public administration, is as an important measure for combating corruption.

Similarly, OECD called for an ethical infrastructure referring to a range of tools and processes for regulating or checking undesirable behaviour and providing incentives to encourage good conduct of public officials. OCED 8-point charter is as follows;

  • Political commitment for ethical governance
  • Creation of Effective legal framework,
  • Evolving an Efficient accountability mechanism,
  • Need for evolving workable codes of conduct,
  • Professional socialization mechanisms (including training),
  • Creation of supportive public service conditions,
  • Need for a central ethics coordinating body,
  • Need for an energetic civil society able to act as a watchdog.

In India, we have a very rich and old tradition of ethical values in public governance which is mostly derived from the ancient Indian scriptures like the Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita, Manusmriti, Arthashastra etc. In these scriptures we can find ideas related to society, ideals of state, qualities of a good ruler etc. are mentioned.

Kuatilya’s conception of ‘Rajrishi’ is very important for a good king and it similar to the conception of ‘philosopher king’ given by Plato. The ethical perspectives on public governance given by Kautilaya in his treatise Arthasastra are as follows;


  • King should be possessing the qualities of leadership and intelligence and should observe moral conduct in governance affairs.
  • King must merge his individuality with duties and must be a properly guided administrator
  • King must avoid extremes without missing the goal
  • Fixed salaries and allowances to be given to king and public servants
  • To maintain law and order is the main duty of king
  • Carrying out preventive and punitive measures against corrupt officials.
  • Replacement of ministers by good ones by the king
  • Disciplined life with a code of conduct for king and ministers
  • Emulation of administrative qualities like uniformity in administrative practice, competent ministers

According to Chanakya, a King (a leader) should be a Rajarishi which means a king who is wise like a sage. Like a sage, a leader must have self-control having conquered his senses and at the same time should be well-educated in the various branches of knowledge. He should cultivate his intellect by associations with elders and keep his eyes open through spies. He should ensure the observance of dharma (righteousness) by the people by authority and should avoid associations with harmful persons and indulging in harmful activities.

According to Gandhiji, there is no water tight compartment between personal, private and social ethics. For him, Dharma is everything and he used the concept of dharma in three senses – as duty, religion and ethics.

Dharma, in the Indian tradition, commands morality in the sense of righteous conduct. Mahatma Gandhi has raised dharma to a higher pedestal, signifying a quality through which we know “our duty in human life and our religion with other selves”.

The whole discourse of ethics and ethical conducts of Gandhi evolve around purushartha that was enunciated by Lord Krishna and recorded in Bhagwad Gita. Gandhiji ethical principles are ethics of non-violence, humanity, truth, responsibility for self and principled rejection of the distracting ills of modernity. Let’s look at Gandhian perspective on ethics in public administration;

  • Non-violence in political context – For Gandhi, Non-violence in political context refers to through submission to a virtuous life led by the pursuit of truth. He reminds that non-violence was not about fomenting revolution directly but was about obeying rule of law through virtue-led practical action that is expressed as a principled disagreement with its implementation or certain content.

As a doctrine of peaceful resistance, the practice of Non-violence meant politely accepting responsibility for transgressing the law while also stating cogently one’s reason for disagreement. In addition, non-violence means avoiding all thoughts or actions that do violence, even mental, against any other living thing.

For him maintaining Non-violence position requires constant supervision of one’s thoughts and actions which requires virtues such as pursuit of truth, humility, responsibility and satyagraha.

  •  Economic governance – For Gandhi, Engagement with the economy was engagement with a “right” economy or one in which moral progress kept pace with material progress and in which technology did not replace human beings but instead made their labour and sufferings less. Gandhiji captured this notion in the concept of Swadeshi.

 According to Gandhi, one could own private property but one could not steal. One could pursue wealth (artha) as part of the four aims of life (Purushartha) but could not do so with selfish intentions.

As pertains to nation, selfish behaviour, particularly corruption and economizing without regard to the material and moral needs of people, was immoral in eyes of Gandhi.

  • Ethics in public service – For Gandhi, devotion to non-violence, thorough-going public service to the nation and world, humility, engagement, and taking responsibility for one’s actions must be attributes of public servants.
  • Ministership – Gandhi stressed that this is not a political prize but “avenues to service” and had to be held lightly and tightly. Gandhi expected the Congress rule not through the police backed by the military but through its moral authority based upon the greatest goodwill of the people ‘won through’ the service of the people
  • Seven Social Sins – Quoted by Mahatma Gandhi is highly relevant to bring ethicality in public governance and improving the ethical status of public administration. These are as follows;
    • Politics without principles
    • Wealth without work
    • Pleasure without conscience
    • Knowledge without character
    • Commerce without morality
    • Science without humanity
    • Worship without sacrifice.

Let’s look at diversified perspective on this subject;

Ethics in government has been a subject of great interest to political philosophers. John Locke argued that government is created by the people and remains accountable to them. Government has the political power to make and enforce law but only for public good.

Thomas Paine defined the objective of government to be the greatest sum of individual happiness at the least national expense based on the philosophy of Utilitarianism.

American Declaration of Independence states that all men are equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.

Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, the fundamental document of the French Revolution proclaims that Men are born and remain free and equal in Rights; All citizens are equally admissible to public dignities, places, employment; and Citizens be guaranteed rights of liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression and freedom of speech’.

These ideals can be secured only if holders of public office, both the elected representatives as well as public servants, entrusted with the task of running the government have ethical moorings. It is well accepted fact that the holder of a public office is a trustee of public power attached to that office. The power should not be abused or misused, for that would amount to betrayal of the trust.

Justice J. S. Verma emphasises these ethical ideals for governance in following words, “Investment of all power is in trust and coupled with accountability to the source of that power. In a democratic republic the source of that power — is ‘we, the People’. The exercise of that power must, therefore, always be for public welfare, and accountability of all public men, however highly placed, must be enforced by an effective mechanism.”

United Nations Code of Conduct for Public Officials categorically states that a public office is ‘a position of trust, implying a duty to act in public interest’ and ‘public officials shall ensure that they perform their duties and functions efficiently, effectively and with integrity, in accordance with laws and administrative policies’.


The ethical concerns of governance have been underscored widely in Indian scriptures and other treatises such as Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagvad Gita etc. At the same time, one cannot ignore the maxims on ethical governance provided by the Chinese philosophers such as Lao Tse, Confucius and Mencius.

In the Western philosophy, there are three eminent schools of ethics – Virtue Ethics of Aristotle, Deontology of Immanuel Kant, and Utilitarian ethics by Bentham and J.S. Mill. The Western thought is full of ethical guidelines to rulers, whether in a monarchy or a democracy. These concerns are found in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and others.

The gist of wisdom on administrative ethics is that the public administrators are the “guardians” of the Administrative State. Hence, they are expected to honour public trust and not violate it. 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.

In contemporary times, the movement of Good Governance, initiated by the World Bank in 1992 lays stress on the ethical and moral conduct of administrators. John Kennedy had averred:  “No responsibility of government is more fundamental than the responsibility of maintaining the higher standards of ethical behaviour.”

The ideal-type construction of bureaucracy, propounded by Max Weber also highlighted an ethical imperative of bureaucratic behaviour. Weber observed, “In the rational type, it is a matter of principle that the members of the administrative staff should be completely separated from ownership of the means of production and administration.” Weber’s analysis underscores the need to prevent the misuse of an official position for personal gains. From a normative angle also, the message is clear, Don’t misuse official property for personal benefit.

Most critics of real-world bureaucracies, including Laski, Carl Friedrich etc. have criticised bureaucrats for violating the prescribed norms of moral conduct. The deviations from the norms and mores have been too glaring to be ignored. Immoral behaviour thus has become an integral component of `Bureaupathology’. (This aspect will be discussed in detail under Ethical concerns and dilemmas in government and private institutions)

It needs to be done at two levels – first, by ensuring Personnel management and second, by improving Governance mechanism. Let’s understand this in detail.

Personnel management

  • Recruitment – Selection of competent and suitable candidates according to skills, knowledge and experience. Ignoring favouritism and nepotism aspects with more focus on the ability and moral values of the person.
  • Training – Apart from professional training, value education and training should also be an integral part in civil services/public services. Value education should be better taken care of at school and college level.
  • Code of conduct/ethics – It should be provided statutory backing for strict adherence by civil servants. In addition, focus should be shifted from “code of conduct” to “code of ethics” in administrative set-up.
  • Rewards and punishments – System of rewards and punishments should be followed sincerely to put the administrative system back on the track and bring back the trust of the citizens on the government.

Governance mechanism

  • Accountability and Responsibility – Fixed responsibility should be followed to ensure accountability of public services. This will avoid confusion as well as duplication of work.
  • Maxim of co-ordination – All levels of hierarchical set-up of governmental organizations should work following the principle of coordination.
  • Preventive vigilance – There should be surprise checks by the higher authorities to put a check on the civil servants so that they do not misuse their power or positions to meet their selfish ends. In addition, vigilance awareness programmes need to be mandatorily conducted.
  • Rule of law – The rules and regulations should be equally followed by all citizens of our country including political executives, administrators, people and other higher officials. They should not be given too much VIP treatment/benefits out of way but should be regarded as a common man so they can understand the problems of a common man.
  • Citizen charter – To ensure accountability, transparency and responsiveness in administration, proper implementation of Citizens’ Charter document should be mandatory.
  • Public service delivery – The government should set minimum standards of delivery of public services to ensure quality and make them hassle-free. Periodic evaluation should be done on the performance and achievement of organizational goals.
  • Grievance Redress – Effective redressal system should be incorporated in the organizations. A sincere endeavour should be made to improve the quality of public service delivery taking into consideration the feedback from the service users.