How can legislators, ministers and public official identify conflicts of interest? How can public servants be made aware of the ethical dilemmas a conflict of interest poses in the performance of their duties? This report by Transparency International addresses the challenges of identifying exactly what constitutes a conflict of interest. It suggests mechanisms to prevent them from arising and ways to resolve them when they do occur.
Government decisions should be guided by public interest, that is, what is believed to be most beneficial to the general welfare of society. A conflict of interest arises when the private interests of a politician or official clash or coincide with that public interest. The key is question is whether private interest could influence, or appear to influence, the decisions officials have to make in their working lives.
Establishing mechanisms to avoid, address, raise public awareness of and in turn resolve conflicts of interest are essential. However, if adequate enforcement measures are not simultaneously developed, the impact of regulations will be undermined. Enforcement responsibility is variably charged to independent bodies, members’ committees or a combination of both. It is essential that this role is not left to the media or political opponents who will not be able to act in an objective and authoritative manner.
Ultimately, the successful implementation of established rules, regulations and codes established depends on the willingness and integrity of individuals to observe them. Defining issue are:
- A conflict of interest can be personal, representational or include other private pecuniary and non-pecuniary interests.
- Conflicts of interest can arise from an innumerable range of scenarios and tasks that public officials are required to perform. Mechanisms to avoid or resolve conflict of interest situations must be specific to each position (e.g. legislators, ministers, officials).
- Establishing grounds for qualification or disqualification to hold public office is the foundation of a conflict of interest policy.
- Other mechanisms include requiring the disclosure of personal interests (and assets/ income) to an independent body; the definition of codes of conduct; clear regulation of lobbying and registration of professional lobbyists;
- Finally, the establishment of post-office employment restrictions to avoid deriving any advantages from access to confidential information.
Sanctions and penalties should depend on the gravity of the breach. These can range from a simple reprimand to suspension, the termination of appointment or a criminal penalty. The definition of clear rules, standards and codes regarding what constitutes a conflict of interest will improve public confidence in government and contribute to strengthening accountability mechanisms. It is therefore important that donors:
- Support initiatives to develop adequate mechanisms and enforcement measures to deal with conflicts of interest.
- Contribute to the development of ethical customs and practices, and act in an exemplary manner.