Public Audit Sheds Light on Public Sector Integrity

Public external audit addresses questions of integrity from the point of view of the consequences of one’s actions. Compliance and ethical behaviour are not always in line: how one’s action is seen by others is important. When a potential conflict of interest is debated, the bulk of the problem is not how one feels about it but how others could see the situation. Each generation reshapes its take on ethical behaviour. Due to the rapidly changing environment and the development of artificial intelligence, also novel ethical questions arise.

When Oedipus met the Sphinx on his way to Thebes, he was asked the following riddle: “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?”

The Ancient Greeks borrowed the legend of the Sphinx from the Egyptians, who saw the Sphinx as a benevolent creature. The Greek, however, saw it as malevolent. The Sphinx’s behaviour caused chaos and turmoil. What is seen as good and what is seen as bad are reshaped by new generations and new cultures. While ethics study what is good and bad behaviour, ethical considerations on right and wrong change with the context and with time. Each generation and society reshape their own considerations and concepts of morality and integrity.

There are, however, sound premises in the study of ethics. The root word êthos means character, moral nature. What interests us in relation to integrity issues in the public sector is applied ethics, or the study of human behaviour in a given situation: what is good and right behaviour and how we act in relation to another person. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) considers that good behaviour translates into actions that have good consequences rather than bad consequences. This would mean the intention of an act is not sufficient in view of ethics and integrity, but what is important is that which can be observed, that which is seen by others. When making a decision regarding one’s behaviour, one must thus pause to think about the question “How will this be seen by others?” This, in turn, links to the values of others: what is to be done, what should be done – this can sometimes be in violent contrast to what an individual wants to do.

International guidelines can support integrity in the public sector

In 2017, the OECD adopted a new Recommendation on Public Integrity . Trust within the society is a prerequisite for democracy and equality in society. A rule-of-law state builds trust through strong efforts for openness and transparency of the public administration and public decision-making. As the OECD points out in an ingress to the Recommendation, “integrity is essential for building strong institutions and assures citizens that the government is working in their interest, not just for the select few. Integrity is not just a moral issue, it is also about making economies more productive, public sectors more efficient, societies and economies more inclusive. It is about restoring trust, not just trust in government, but trust in public institutions, regulators, banks, and corporations.”

The wide use of Codes of Conduct in the public sector shows that guidance is needed, but guidance also needs to be adapted to the changing environment and the changing values of society. International benchmarking can support this alignment and shed light on new emerging issues. In order to better understand how our actions will be seen by others, we need to foster dialogue. Each generation of public servants faces new questions relating to the changing environment and new public policy targets. Hence a whole-of-government-wide discussion and reflection on public sector ethics is necessary.

In the public debate on public sector ethics, two perspectives emerge: one which is interested in the possible immediate benefit or gain of malicious behaviour for the public official himself and one in which the interest is broader, concerned with the impact of the actions or the non-actions of the public official as he carries out his duties. The first one is sometimes easier to identify and to write click-worthy headlines on, whereas the latter can have major consequences on how public sector policy is shaped and hence have much wider impacts on our society while remaining difficult to see.

In the current VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) setting, public servants face rapidly changing demands on policy-making. The digital disruption and the development of artificial intelligence and deep learning challenge public sector actors. There is a strong need to create agile and open professional networks to update and widen public sector actors’ understanding of the new ethical dimensions of a changing society. Within organisations, this dialogue can be encouraged and managed at team level, given the teams have adequate diversity and heterogeneity. The current policy-making challenges are best tackled by multidisciplinary teams. This could also strengthen the institutions from an ethical perspective.

Ethics and integrity in the Finnish public sector

In the current Finnish Artificial Intelligence programme Aurora AI , where AI is used to guide citizens towards public services, there is an imminent need to discuss who determines what is a good life. Aurora AI contacts citizens on social media platforms and proposes, for example, education or employment services based on the assumed need in relation to what it has been taught to be good behaviour. The policymakers need to determine the ideal model based on which they code the service path for citizens. But how should they determine which path is the right one for an individual young person contacted and guided by the AI? And who is responsible for the decisions made by the AI and its consequences for the citizens’ actions?

What makes working with AI even more challenging is that although several ethical guidelines are developed concurrently, there are no global standards that would make clear reference points [1].  Governments are enablers of Artificial Intelligence. Governments need to debate the difference of what is possible and what is wanted: crossing the “creepy line” in technology can create social distress or upheaval. Moreover, as governments automate public service processes, there is a high risk of there being digital “black boxes”, where the administrators are no longer able to explain the logics of a given administrative decision.

In Finland, the main focus has been on measures encouraging and supporting ethical conduct and an integrity culture in organisations rather than on prevention of unethical conduct by means of detailed rules and punishments. The underpinning idea is that there is no single measure – a silver bullet – that could be used to improve public sector ethics. Effective integrity policy requires that multiple mutually reinforcing measures be adopted systematically.

The overall governance model of administration (administrative structure, steering, management) forms a basic framework which indirectly affects ethics: the clarity of staff responsibilities and objectives, accountability. Public sector ethics are interconnected with other aspects of Good Governance, especially leadership and management practices, transparency and openness. To support values-based ethics work, various instructions and directives (secondary occupations, hospitality, gifts and benefits, trips offered by outsiders, waiting period contract) have been issued for organisations.

In order to institutionalise professional ethics management, an independent body, the Advisory Board on Civil Service Ethics, was established in 2015. The Finnish Open Government Partnership programme enhances plain language and citizen engagement. The Finnish Explore State Spending website, made possible by the digitalisation of the public procurement process, enhances the transparency of central government  [2].

With the aim of fostering a better understanding of current integrity frameworks and novel questions related to the digital disruption, the National Audit Office of Finland initiated in 2018 the creation of a web-based course on public sector ethics, which is run by the Finnish Institute of Public Management and is now part of many public sector institutions’ staff education programmes.

Auditors can spark an informed public debate to support public sector integrity

Public external audit can support ongoing debates on public sector integrity by extending its audit from the compliance question “Was it done right?” to the impact question “Were the right things done”? For this, we have good tools – financial, compliance and performance audit can all have a future-oriented focus – and moreover, the profession is keen on evolving from providing oversight to insight and foresight. Auditors can audit organisational culture by, for example, auditing the financial management behaviour of high officials. These audits are not about materiality but about the tone on the top, as the leadership example reveals parts of institutional culture of an organization.

Anti-corruption measures and the work to strengthen the integrity of public service are interlinked and need to be balanced to create an environment that encourages ethical behaviour. In the long run, it is often more costly to build extensive control systems than to educate and inform and thus create a culture of social pressure fostering good governance.

Customs and conventions guide us when we think about what actions are expected of us. Public sector actors have a lot of power in determining which customs and conventions are strengthened in each society. This relative strength also provides a moral base for taking into account the needs of the more vulnerable people when designing public services. This contributes to the level of trust citizens have in public governance. Many leading administrations work on how to anticipate the needs of a more and more heterogeneous society and how to create public services with a customer-centric approach. The technological developments have made innovation possible in the domain of new tools for participatory governance.

The rapid changes in our operating environment cause difficulties from a compliance perspective when legislation becomes obsolete. Legislation has a natural lag – it is based on past values and past context. Auditors can also point to these shortcomings. Also, legislation or official ethics guidance are not the only baseline for how actions are measured and interpreted in society. Transparency can have its toll on how public scrutiny takes place, especially in times of social media. Recently, a minister in Finland resigned due to how the media portrayed her use of public funds for media coaching. The compliance aspect was cleared, but this did not end the public blame.

The answer to the Sphinx’s riddle was “man”: he crawls as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult and uses a walking stick in his twilight years. Public sector integrity encompasses the very different needs of the most vulnerable and the most agile. Auditors are well positioned to see the whole-of-society perspective on ethical and integrity questions. Auditors will not shut their eyes to adversity – in the form of a rapidly changing environment – but they will seek to continuously address the integrity issues detected in landscape scans and audits. In line with the United Nations Agenda 2030, auditors can spark a beneficial public debate by making these insights public and by taking part in a wider dialogue with different stakeholders.

[1] See for example the comparative framework of responsible AI principles by the Software Alliance: or the Study on Ethics and AI by the European Parliament Research Service:

[2] Website in Finnish: