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An Institutional Conception of Public Integrity

Institutions
Political Theory
Corruption
Normative Theory
Nikolas Kirby
University of Oxford
Nikolas Kirby
University of Oxford

Abstract

There has been increasing focus, including by the OECD, on promoting public integrity as a key strategy in reducing corruption. However, the concept of integrity itself remains underdeveloped. In this paper, I address the flaws in current conceptions, and present a novel conception that applies to institutions rather than individuals. Current Conceptions Many existing conceptions either define ‘integrity’ as the absence of corruption, or such absence plus additional features like ‘impartiality’ or the ‘absence of discretion’. In practice, these conceptions depend upon the same anti-corruption frameworks that have proven inadequate. Most conceptions define public integrity primarily in terms of the integrity of individuals, and hence institutional integrity as its sum. These conceptions suffer a compositional fallacy: eg, individual integrity may require the abdication of duties on the basis of conscience, whilst institutional integrity requires fulfilment of such duties to achieve legitimate purpose; or a leader may have individual integrity, but if she is ineffective she will not improve overall institutional integrity. Many conceptions of integrity define its moral content by what is ‘generally publically accepted.’ Such conceptions face charges of vagueness and/or relativism; fail to explain how an institution may retain integrity by holding steadfast against majority opinion when it turns toxic; and fail to offer an independent test distinguishing ‘public’ from ‘non-public’ values. Some conceptions reduce integrity to a list of values: openness, impartiality, absence of discretion, and so on. These conceptions suffer counter-examples (national security agencies would lack integrity if they were ‘open’; the integrity of the competitive political system presupposes partisan not impartial politicians). Further, they offer no way of resolving conflict between such values. An Alternative Approach Using a methodology of ‘pragmatic conceptual construction’, this paper presents ‘public integrity’ as the robust disposition of an institution, through its constitutive parts, to cohere to its legitimate purpose, across time and circumstance. First, by reference to the ‘robust disposition’ of an institution, I mean that its integrity is not solely measured by its performance in favourable circumstances, but by its capacity to withstand shocks. Second, by ‘constitutive parts’ I mean the membership, norms, incentives and formal rules of the institution. Third, although defining ‘legitimacy’ (like any moral component) is controversial, it properly focuses attention upon whether a government is morally permitted to establish a particular purpose, rather than whether it is morally ‘right’, ‘just’, or ‘generally accepted’. Fourth, by reference to ‘purpose’, I embrace the implication that an institution that cannot articulate a clear purpose lacks integrity. We thus indict political pressures upon leaders to keep purposes vague and operationally inconsistent. Finally, I argue that trustworthy institutions rather than particular individuals are most important for building trust in government. I avoid the moralism implicit in selecting public servants on the basis of individual integrity. And, without denying the importance of leadership in building public integrity, our conception is consistent with individual conduct primarily being a function of the other constitutive parts of the institution.