Conflict of Interest: A Source of Corruption in Government
It is an unfortunate reality that supposedly small conflicts of interest can grow into fully-fledged corruption. Within government, conflicts of interest can at first seem like the most minor of issues. Certainly, small favours might be given or suppliers provided with minor inside information. Perhaps friends are awarded short-term contracts without an entirely complete tender process being applied. Especially when time and/ or money is a crucial factor, these can seem like small conflicts compared to the bigger task of getting the main job done. After all, aren’t we trying to become more business-like in our government practices? We explain why it is a slippery slope from ‘mere’ conflict of interest, to corruption in government activities.
Where’s the conflict?
Conflict of interest involves the unacceptable overlapping of personal and public interests. Let’s take an example from the political realm. We have all seen red-faced ministers admit that they own undisclosed shares in a company whose activities fall within their industry portfolio. One personal interest – the shares – has a direct clash with their public responsibility, being the privilege of holding elected public office. There is often a ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ element to conflict of interest in government. After all, stakeholder engagement is an increasingly important part of public roles. Plus, all levels of government are now generally being driven towards private-style operational modes. In the face of this reality, it can be hard to separate good service from conflict of interest.
Navigating the space
One important element of identifying conflicts of interest is perception. In reality, a government worker might have absolutely no intention of using their privilege, connection to industry or policy knowledge to advance their own interests. Yet even if a conflict of interest is only perceived to exist – rather than actually being real – the damage might already be done. It is important for all public officers to declare and discuss potential conflicts, both real and perceived. What might only seem a minor issue can in fact have a large impact upon the public trust that is attached to a person, unit or department. In short, it is best to err on the side of caution when identifying and declaring potential conflicts of interest.
An insidious slide
Conflicts of interest left unchecked can become the perfect seeds for enduring corruption in government. When the initial conflicts go unnoticed or undeclared, a culture of corrupt action and decision-making will often begin to emerge. Particularly where a conflict produces improper gains that are small ‘in the grand scheme of things’, it can seem to the parties involved that nothing particularly bad is going on. For government workers who consider their pay insufficient, their outside activities more important or their ambitions essential, it can seem that a small beneficial conflict is completely inconsequential. Yet the ongoing repetition or development of the conflicted behaviour is a sure-fire pathway to outright corruption. Another way that conflicts of interest can evolve into full-scale corrupt behaviour is where the culture and/or senior management adopts a permissive attitude towards the practice – or even initiates it. Unethical and corrupt behaviour can then combine to become the new normal.
When personal gains are made at the expense of public trust – or even when a perception of this prevails – the potential for corruption within government is pronounced. One ongoing challenge for public sector bodies is developing policy and training resources that actually embed themselves into workplace culture. Conflicts of interest and corruption can sometimes be given a simple ‘tick’ in terms of corporate documentation and practices. Thorough risk analysis and practical ethics training can go some way to ensuring conflict-minimisation, and the prevention of corruption within government workplaces.