Friday, February 1, 2008

Government Employees Ethics Violations

Well, well, well! Why am I not surprise? The Ethics Resource Center released a study which found that nearly 60% of government employees in America (local, state and federal) had witnessed violations of ethical standards and 58% who saw it did not report it because they did not believe any action would be taken. What the report does not say is how many or what percentage of government employees are the culprits. Pitty! That would have been far more interesting statistics than who witnessed unethical behavior.

The most frequently observed violation was abusive behavior (23%), safety violations (21%) lying to employees (20%).

But the report also found that fraud occurred as frequently in government as in the private sector (white collar crime). These include: Alterations of documents (we had that case a few years ago when the Bush administration changed data from a scientific study, requested by him, to make the global warming data looked mild and non-alarming); misreporting of hours worked (“Isn’t that a way of life for many lawyers and consultants?”); and lying to customers, the public and workers. (I wonder if politicians were also under the surveyed group. And if not, what would the increase in the “lying to the public” statistic be.) But it does make me wonder about something. If fraud and unethical behavior happens as often in the public sector as in the private sector, should the government be the ones to police private sector misconduct?

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Compare to a previous study in 2000 several blatantly illegal types of misconduct showed a marked decline. These include stealing, taking bribes, sexual harassment and discrimination. But do not for one minute think corruption in US government and politics are low-keyed.

Of course, the private sector’s violations of ethical standards are well documented and reported. Just think of Enron and Worldcom, who not only falsified documents and lied to the public at large, but also indirectly stole from the taxpayer by not paying the correct taxes. Several of the top brass from these companies are now retired into the US Penitentiary system and are now fed and lodged by the taxpayer.

As a South African American I involuntary thought about the same subject in South Africa who had its fair share of fraud cases involving government employees and some real high flyers in the public eye. Jacob Zuma, the ex-Vice President of the country, thus also a government employee, was fired in 2005 for corruption charges related to an arms deal. Zuma is one of several politicians caught in taking bribes and “alternative forms of financially improving themselves.” Although his case is still open, he made a “great comeback” by recently being elected as the ANC’s new president and could well become the next President of South Africa in 2009. It seems Mr. Zuma is a real live-on-the-edge-kind-of-guy because he was also accused, but acquitted, of raping a HIV-infected family friend and admitted that he had unprotected “consented” sex with her while knowing that she was HIV-infected. (I am thinking of a number…an IQ number…somewhere between 45 and 90...) Of course, with South Africa being statistically the rape capital of the world, Zuma’s case is neither a rarity nor a surprise. (A study by Interpol claims a woman gets rape every 17 seconds in South Africa and that exclude child rape. The US Justice Department reported a woman gets rape every 2 minutes in the USA. But note these statistics are only from countries that actually publish these numbers. Many countries, especially African countries do not publish any numbers. But I’m getting off the point)

The South African government, like many other governments is trying its best and seems to be rather good at identifying government employee misconduct, but they have a real problem making anything stick in the courts. The Teflon Award for evading jail must go to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Although convicted for kidnapping and assault in 1991, on appeal her 6 year sentence was reduced to a fine. In 2003 she was convicted on 43 accounts of fraud and 25 accounts of theft and received a 5 years prison sentence, which was, surprise, surprise, overturned by a High Court judge and she got away with one conviction of fraud and a suspended sentence. Did you know: Her Xhoza name is Nomzamo, which means trial? How did her parents know she was going to spend so many years in trials?

If one reads the South African newspapers and blogs one get the sense that fraud is rampant in South Africa. But is it just a perception? Is it really worst than in many other countries? The Norwegian-based Anti-Corruption Resources Centre describes South Africa as a country with “occasional corruption.” I know of several people that will raise an eyebrow of two hearing that statement. Their “Country Corruption Assessment Report of 2004” suggests that “perhaps 10% of people experience corruption in a twelve month period.” I can see another few eyebrows being raised. Among the criteria they based their findings on is the fact that South African firms take the best candidate for a job. HUH? Did they actually do this survey in South Africa? Were they actually there? Are they aware of a thing called Affirmative Action or Transformation? I mean, just this past January the rugby authorities acknowledged that the new national coach was appointed not because he was the best candidate or even got the most votes in the Presidents Council, but because he was non-white. And last year they ruled that the position of the team manager can only be held by a black person. Now the rugby union is not the government, but the union is under pressure from the government, especially the ANC, to “transform” the sport by including more blacks in the teams and management structures. The point is Affirmative Action is law. Although discrimination against race, religion, tra, la, la is law, the exception to the usual statement is that firms are forced to employ ethnical-correct people versus merit based, and could be fined if they do not follow the affirmative action line.

A big problem in South Africa is the gravy train. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once accused government ministers of only stopping the gravy train long enough for them to climb onto it.

Another big problem is ghost workers. No, they are not ex-government employees that loved their jobs so much that they returned after death. They are non-entities with identities, false identities, “working” in government departments, drawing a salary. How many ghost workers are there? A 1996 report claim 300,000. In a 2003 research paper, the author, who interviewed 180 officials from Assistant Directors up to Director-General level, in two provinces and two national departments, including 10 member of the provincial cabinets, claimed 15% of the respondents admitted they have ghost workers in their department at that moment. And 90% of the respondents said they had ghost workers in the past.

What the actual or perceived ethics misconduct statistics in South Africa are is unknown to me and if it ever gets published I do not know if it can be believed. But we know misconduct is everywhere and in probably all countries. It is how every country deals with the misconduct that leaves the lasting impression of corrupted or trustworthy government with the public at large.

According to Transparency International’s 2007 corruption perception index Denmark is the least corrupted country in the world. The United States is ranked 20th and South Africa is ranked 43rd least corrupted country in the world.

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