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Public Accountability and Ethical Conduct

How much reliance is to be placed on formal prescriptions and control mechanisms and degree of trust to be pinned on inner compasses of persons with public responsibilities?

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It is necessary that a certain degree of reliance needs to be placed on formal prescriptions and control mechanisms which, in essence, bulwarks modern governance systems. Under a democratic system of governance, the elected representatives have public accountability to the people who have set them on the throne of administration, and require them to administer and serve the country in the best possible way. But, placing 100% reliance on the control mechanism and system may not be prudent, nor desirable. This is because people may not possess the highest standards of honesty; integrity and commitment that are needed to serve at the high levels of administrative duties to subserve the interests of the masses.

It is also quite possible that people may be led into committing errors and ethical malpractices while holding high office, perhaps unfettered by the need to make themselves accountable for their devious actions, or may manipulate the state machinery to seek and advance their own vested interests. Under such circumstances, the individual interests shall claim precedence over public interests, which are as much unethical, as is demeaning. Therefore, it is very much necessary that the offices held by public, or government servants need to be free of individualistic, institutionalized corruption or unethical practices. For this, it is necessary that these offices are manned by persons who have excellent track records of ethical and scrupulous conduct, and are not influenced by monetary or non-monetary inducements. Again, it is also seen that the human qualities and adherence to moral principles and values need to underpin their personal and administrative roles in society.

While an unethical person may be seduced into corrupt practices, it is also possible that circumstances and environmental factors, including pressures of many kinds, may even make an ethical person succumb to external pressures of corrupt practices and unethical behavior. Therefore, it would not only be the individual but also the environment, which determines good or bad action. However, what needs to be understood is that, in a publicly run governance, nobody should escape the check-and-balance system and all actions need to be scrutinized and audited by monitoring groups, to eliminate the incidence or chances of frauds, errors or misrepresentations. Procedural norms and audits need to be conducted from time to time in order to ensure maintenance of the highest standards of ethical governance, and also to uphold the moral and fair principles beholding public offices. The fact remains that public servants may not be able to follow standards consistently, and therefore, rules, strictures and norms need to be enforced and audited from time to time. It is no truism to maintain that, in more cases than not, public employees could stand devoid of liability if they have acted within the framework of the law and accepted practices.

Thus, under normal circumstances, they would be absolved of guilt cannot be pinned on them, or the fact proved beyond reasonable doubt, that they had acted like a normal person of ordinary intelligence and prudence would have acted under similar circumstances. It would be incumbent on the part of the prosecution to prove that such care had not been taken, and losses had resulted, due to such improprieties. Therefore, public servants need to perform a tightrope walk with care and discretion – balancing, on one hand the rights of citizens, vis-à-vis the responsibilities of public servants towards them, and secondly, their own duties and responsibilities as agents toward their principals – their superior officers and the bureaucracy as a complete entity by itself.

While public servants may have public accountability, they are also part of a larger bureaucratic framework, with intricate agency and principal relationships, having crisscrossing of power, authority and responsibility. Thus, while the individual ethical standards need to be considered, especially in a high office, it is also necessary that opportunities are not offered, or laid out for public servants, in which position they may be serving, that could give room for circumventing or transgressing the law and violating , however mildly or insignificantly, established moral and ethical moorings.

How much should we rely on laws to keep administrators in check and how much reliance needs to be placed on moral conscience of administrators?

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The main aspects of public laws are to ensure that funds are used for the intents and purposes for which they have been instituted, with little scope for leakages, diversion, or misuse of public funds and that public servants also need to operate within the framework of legal strictures, besides the need to care for demands, rights and requirements of citizens. Therefore, there are laws that need to be adhered to by public servants at all costs and at all times. While there are laws, there is also need for enforcement of these laws, in order to gain public currency. It would be unethical and impractical to hold one person, or bureau, accountable for instituting and enforcement of laws, since he has limited capacity and authority, Yet there is a need for maintaining accountability in an covered government through intricate networks. While there may be truth in the policy that a certain degree of faith in the moral character and rectitude of public servants need to be maintained, it is also necessary to adopt checks and balances in order to keep the system at the optimum level of efficiency. While these auditing systems do, to a large extent, ensure that misdeeds may not be committed, it is also necessary to have robust systems that could address individual and institutional cases. Thus, the following aspects need to be kept in mind:

There need to be elaborate rules that should be adhered to. Dictums and accountability norms ensure that probability of deviations is kept at the minimum, and also, normal functions are rendered by public servants in the accepted manner in which these are required and facilitated. Public servants, as agents, are accountable to the bureaucratic hierarchy, and to the ultimate powers that be. However, the complex nature and intricacies that are invoked, especially with the principal-agent relationship, ensures that there could be scope for non-ethical and violative principles, should the need and occasion arise.

However, the process of seeking public mandate, or voting in a democratic process, ensures that accountability cannot be separated from authority, since it is the privilege of the plebiscite process to order who should administer the country and how. Further, the laws are reinforced by the fact that in a democratic institution, there is power division between “the executive, legislature and the judicial institutions.” (Chapter Fourteen: Public accountability and ethical conduct, 332).

The polarization, or segregation of the need to place reliance on legislative instruments, on the one hand, and the conscience keeper of these laws, the public servants, on the other, is a matter of subjective exposition. Laws cease to hold validity until and unless they are enforced and become a part of practice and observance. For laws to be truly effective, they need to be a part of the ongoing system, and need to effectively broker and enforce rights on the aggrieved, as opposed to the aggressor. However, it is sad but true that sometimes the law permits the public enforcement system to transgress its vested powers and authority. This was laid bare in the Case of Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales 545 US 748 2005:

The legal inadequacies of law enforcers were rather dramatically exposed in this case where a wife and mother were deprived of her rights of protection over her own children, which resulted in their brutal murder and the failure to bring the culprits to book.

The facts of this case were the apparent failure of the law enforcement to enforce restraining order on the (divorced) husband of the applicant, as a result of which he murdered three children of the applicant and was killed in a police shoot out after firing at the policemen in duty at the police station.” The plaintiff filed a complaint against the Town of Castle Rock Police Depart­ment and several of its officers, alleging a claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for viola­tion of her due process rights.” (Parzymieso, 28). However, in this landmark case “The court held that internal administrative procedures do not give rise to protect-able property interests; nor did the consent decree create an independent substantive right to which due process attached.“ (Parzymieso, 28).

Which is a better measure of accountability – External or internal controls and/or the personal character of the administrator? How do you support your choice?

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The external and/or internal controls, by far are better measures of accountability. This is because although popular mandate provides authority and power to rule to political outfits and their representatives, the criteria for gaining party ticket is based more on individualistic influence and power politics, rather than past or future governance. Even people incumbent in public office have been summarily and peremptorily removed, and thus it would be far-fetched, at least in the present juncture, to view personality attributes and traits as a formative part of accountability. While these may have born at the highest office, or strategic positions, by and large, it is the external and internal control mechanism that dictates the accountability levels that need to be adhered to. Public laws are formulated and approved according to the due process of law and abiding democratic values. These are framed into laws, which need to be obeyed by all, including the President of the United States of America.

Perhaps, one of the major factors that impinge upon internal or external controls would be in terms of “conflicts of interest.” (Chapter Fourteen: Public accountability and ethical conduct, 353).

This refers to a situation where the private aspirations of a public servant may conflict with his official commitments and obligations. Under such circumstances, he needs to decide which to give more preference and weightage. It is necessary to instill close and effective control mechanism in the case of public offices, primarily in order to ensure that the activities of public offices are in line with acceptable and within defined limits. It is not only necessary that public servants work within the ambit of norms and strictures, but also their performance is positive and growth-oriented. It is seen that in the case of public accountability, rules govern what is to be done and what is not to be done, the chain of command and hierarchical control ensures that discipline and commitment are carried out.

Public offices are conspicuous by their strong adherence to formal norms and procedures, or bureaucracy as is often termed. It stifles growth and creativity and yet is widely practiced for being the epitome of good and consistent governance. While public servants need to be on the right side of the laws, they also need to perform well and offer productivity and efficient customer-based governance as one of their main goals and objectives. Deficiency in public accountability and credibility could cause a bane in the political system and even provide avenues for change in governance, which are facts well documented in the annals of American history.

Works Cited

Chapter Fourteen: Public accountability and ethical conduct. (Provided by the customer).

Parzymieso, Susan B. Failure to protect cases Post-Castle Rock V. Gonzalez: Expanding the scope of castle rock beyond failure to protect cases. Governmental Library. 2007. Web.

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