Nuala Haughey: In the wake of this week’s RTÉ Investigations Unit programme on standards in public office, there have been renewed calls for a host of legal reforms. These include the establishment of a properly resourced anti-corruption body with full police powers, the appointment of an independent Planning Regulator and the long-overdue overhaul of our toothless ethics ‘watchdog’, the Standards in Public Office Commission.
Certainly, the Standards Commission should get the investigative powers it has been seeking for years, and public representatives who corruptly abuse their office for private gain should live in fear of prosecution. But other measures are also needed, and they are the kinds of reforms that tend to get overlooked in the outpouring of public rage over disturbing exposés such as the RTÉ programme.
The first is the need to encourage a grass roots culture of zero-tolerance towards unethical behaviour by public officials, both elected and unelected.
Public education, information and awareness-raising activities which remind the public of the dangers, and cost, of corruption, could stimulate public support for anti-corruption efforts. That in turn will strengthen and reinforce political will to robustly confront corruption.
As the Mahon Tribunal observed: “if morality and ethics are not a priority for the electorate then they will not be a priority for its representatives.”
As a signatory to the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), Ireland is already required, under Article 13 (1), to take appropriate measures to raise public awareness regarding the existence, causes and gravity of and the threat posed by corruption. These include public information activities to reduce tolerance of corruption, as well as public education programmes, including school and university curricula.
Some of the existing anti-corruption institutions in Ireland carry out limited preventative work – for example, the Standards Commission provides advice regarding conflicts of interest and political finance rules. However, no agency has a specific mandate, accompanied by adequate resources, to raise public awareness about corruption risks and the importance of preventative measures.
This is very troubling, not least because, as Judge Mahon pointed out, without strong public intolerance of corruption, all other criminal or regulatory measures are likely to be ineffective.
Recent Irish history shows that it is indeed possible to generate public support for measures to tackle certain types of intolerable behaviour. For example, drink-driving was once perceived as little more than a prankish misdemeanour. However, thanks to decades-long publicity campaigns and other activities involving government, civil society and citizens, drink-driving now carries a social stigma that is, for many, at least as big a deterrent as the legal penalties it attracts.
A second key preventative step is to roll out training across the public sector, with proper guidance for elected and unelected officials about their ethical duties and in particular the standards expected of them in their interactions with business interests and lobbyists.
The Standards Commission has voiced concerns in the past over the low level of awareness of the various codes of conduct that set the ethical standards expected from public officials. Ongoing training would help foster a culture where ethical standards and the necessary bureaucracy that goes with them come to be seen as a vital and central component of public life, rather than an administrative burden or an optional add-on.
A final reform that would take minimal effort but would signal a welcome cultural shift towards openness is the proactive disclosure of the hundreds of declarations of interest made by councillors each year. It must have taken weeks for RTÉ’s research team to locate and examine more than 949 hand-written declaration forms filled in by councillors detailing their property and other interests.
While such ethics declarations by TDs and Senators are available on the Oireachtas website, only a handful of local authorities post the forms on their websites, including Dublin City Council. Instead, the norm is for councillors' declarations to be made available for inspection in local authority premises during office hours.
This antiquated practice makes it incredibly difficult for citizens, civil society, journalists, other councillors and co-workers to play a role in identifying real or potential conflicts of interest.
After the heated studio discussion on standards in public life ended on Monday night's programme, the next item for debate was the need to proactively tackle Ireland’s obesity crisis. This should indeed by a policy priority – we can daily see the impact of the alarming levels of obesity in our hospital wards and on our streets. Yet corruption in public life, while often less visible, is no less a corrosive force. Yes, let us have well-resourced, independent and properly empowered investigative bodies. But let us also tackle corruption as a health risk to our democracy by fostering a society where investigation is the last resort, not the only option.
Nuala Haughey, is a project manager with TASC and produced the online Toolkit to Open Government, a set of guides that shine a light on how government works and how citizens can get involved in decision-making.