Monday, May 27, 2024

Understanding Conflict of Responsibilty in the Public Service

One of the most known and common features of the practice of public administration is conflict of administrative responsibility. In their normal duties, performing their functional responsibilities, as entailed in the various stipulations governing their work, public officials often have to deal with various forms of conflict of responsibility. There are basically three common ways of conflict of administrative responsibility and I want to briefly look at these and the sort of challenges and permutations they impose on public officials’ response to their duty call; serving the citizen.

These three ways of conflict of administrative responsibilty are; conflicts of authority; role conflict and; conflict of interest. The context of the operationalization of these conflicts is found in the types of responsibility that has, thus far, been postulated by administrative theorists. It is therefore necessary to first briefly touch on these types of responsibility at a general level.

Responsibility is the key concept in our ability to develop certain accepted ethics for our various administrative roles as public officers. Ordinarily we will equate our individual responsibilities with our levels of qualifications, experience, skills and techniques gained through training and where all these places us in the hierarchy of various public service structures. Overall we would then have to shoulder either one or both of the types of responsibilities again depending on our individual positions and levels of seniority. The first type of responsibility we have to understand and manage is objective responsibility, which in turn has two main dimensions, accountability and obligation. As public officers we are known to be responsible to someone above us or some regulatory body that assumes the strategic functions of the organizations.

Administrators are usually responsible to elected officials, their superiors and more importantly to the citizenry. In this context, is embedded the zeal and resolve for serving the public interest. It is this individual or some collective body that we report to and account to, but also assumes overall accountability for our roles and duties. We are, also often, responsible for performance of certain tasks and the general supervision, guidance and management of our subordinate personnel and the commitment each plays in the organization’s pursuit for attainment of goals. These two dimensions of objective responsibility are rooted in the laws, organizational rules, policies, professional standards and job descriptions. These collections of legal and statutory provisions as in public service acts, code of conducts, general orders and many others, provide the context and framework for operationalization of objective responsibility in public organizations.

The second type is subjective responsibility, which in a way acknowledges public officials’ connection with the larger social, cultural and political environment. Subjective responsibility is rooted in our varied beliefs and interpretation of concepts such as loyalty, one’s conscience and how we utilize our interpretative skills in making sense of ethical dictates in our decision making processes. These are our personal preferences as driven by our personal experinces gained through the general processes of social, cultural and political upbringing and inevitably these would vary from one individual to the other. Our feelings and convictions about responsibility to our superiors or elected officials can largely be a result of how we were socialized at our various levels and, within different institutions that ever played a part in our socialization. These would be manifestations of values, attitudes and beliefs that we have over the years acquired from the family, schools, religion, friends, professional training and involvement in various organizations (formal and informal). These then provides us with ways of how to behave or respond when faced with any of the three conflicts.

Conflict of authority is largely when two or more objective responsibilities are imposed upon public administrators by two or more sources of authority. Often public administrators would be torn between adhering to the legal requiremnts of procedures and regulations and satisfying political considerations that might be in conflict with the legal requirements or sometimes contradictory expectations exist among the elected officials and organizational superiors. The choice of which source of authority to satisfy over the other is the very basis of handling conflict of authority and usually it’s a no win situation for public officials, irrespective of the choice they make, simply because the differing expectations demand incompatible actions from the administrators.

The second conflict is that of roles, where values associated with particular roles are often incompatible or mutually exclusive in some given situations. This particular conflict often results from situations where our responsibilities and duties at work conflict with certain values that we hold because we belong to or are members of some group(s) elsewhere. This could be a clash of work ethics and values with those of a religious section, a professional body, a tribal community’s traditions and culture. We don’t always see these as issues that are of any great concern but an indepth assessment of the behaviour of public officials when they make certain decisions can be explained on conflicts of roles they may have been faced with. The trick is whether we have mechanisms in place to identify these aspects of decision making.

Lastly, there is the most known and common of the three types; conflict of interest, where our own personal interests are often at odds with our obligations to the citizenry and our organizations. When this occurs we see a lot of public servants seeing an opportunity to use public office for private or personal gain, suggesting there is an inherent manifestation of a conflict between our roles as public servants and our greed or inclnation to serve self-interests. This type of conflict of responsibility is the most known and spoken of in public service practices and it’s the one that has more legal or statutory requirements in place to deal with.

Anti-corruption agencies as well as other law enforcement agencies and oversight organs are some of the known structures empowered by law to handle issues around conflict of interest. We however, continue to hear calls of more legislation to regulate and manage this area from various quarters in our country. We need to reflect on all these three and ensure a more concise and appropriate approach to minimising their negative impacts.

*Molaodi teaches Public administration at the University of Botswana


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