Public sector falls short in ethics survey
Public sector employees are more likely than those in private companies to observe unethical behavior on the job, according to a survey released last year by New York-based KPMG Forensic. Public employees also were less likely to report misconduct to an outside authority, preferring to handle the problem directly or through supervisors, and fewer of them had confidence that a complaint would be handled appropriately. In addition, the survey found that the prevalence and seriousness of misconduct, including taking kickbacks and mismanaging resources, has not changed since 2000.
KPMG surveyed 4,056 workers in a variety of jobs, 544 of whom were in the public sector, between November 2004 and March 2005. The survey asked about causes of misconduct, what action the employees took to stop it and whether their employers acted as examples of professional behavior. Eighty-one percent of the public sector respondents reported that they had observed misconduct on the job, and 59 percent said that misconduct could lead to a significant loss of public trust if discovered. In comparison, 74 percent of the private sector employees reported having witnessed misconduct, and 50 percent said the corruption they saw could erode public trust. Also, 61 percent of public sector employees said existing policies and procedures were easy to bypass by those committing fraud and other misdeeds.
A high-profile example of such behavior led to the resignation in December of New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who pleaded guilty to charges that he had used a state employee to chauffeur his wife. “[Hevesi] had done that for a number of years,” says Walter Ayres, public information officer for the New York State Ethics Commission. “Certainly a case like this could lead people to believe we need better policies to stop this from happening.” New York legislators are considering a proposal to combine the Ethics Commission with the Temporary State Commission on Lobbying to strengthen ethics enforcement in the state.
The survey struck a tone of truth for Tony Roark, chairman of the Boise, Idaho, Ethics Commission. “It’s a little bit disappointing to me, and a little bit surprising,” he says. “It looks like the public sector is lagging behind.” Boise formed its Ethics Commission two years ago, after former Mayor Brent Coles and his chief of staff were convicted of corruption. Coles was sentenced to 180 days in jail and three years of probation for accepting free airfare and travel money from a health insurance company that was negotiating a contract with the city.
The Boise commission has the power to conduct official inquiries, but so far it has not exercised that power. Instead, it primarily answers requests from city employees who seek clarification of ethical issues, Roark says. Most of the employees are concerned about conflicts of interest, such as developing business relationships with vendors.
Roark’s experience supports the survey’s finding that only 26 percent of public sector employees will report misconduct issues to an ethics or compliance hotline, compared with 38 percent of corporate employees. “We set up a hotline where callers can remain anonymous, and it sees almost no activity,” Roark says. The reason, he says, is that despite the strict whistleblower protection that the city provides, most employees fear retaliation if they report violations. According to the survey, 48 percent of public sector employees felt that they would be protected from retaliation, while 52 percent of the private sector employees felt protected.
Mayor Coles’ conviction has had one positive side effect, Roark says: the city’s current officials are on their best behavior because of increased scrutiny. “I think the mayor and council really do try to set the tone at the top,” Roark says.