Friday, May 22, 2009

Ethics and MP's expenses: storm in a (claimable) teacup?

Crane and Matten have been in the UK this week, and the big issue absolutely dominating the media has been that of the expense claims of the country's Members of Parliament (MPs). The press and TV have been all over this one like a bad rash, and don't look ready to letup soon. Now no one likes to see elected politicians misappropriating the public's hard earned money - and Britain has already seen itself slipping down the greasy poll of the corruption perception rankings as we mentioned last autumn. But over the course of the past few weeks the media storm has relentlessly criticised politicians from across the political spectrum for abusing the public's trust to such a degree that we've already seen one senior figure resign (the Speaker of the House of Commons), various politicians have had their knuckles rapped and have promised to repay their overenthusiastic claims, and party leaders have been scrabbling for the moral high ground in trying to instigate new systems of control.

When all is said and done, there is little evidence in all this that any of the politicians involved have actually broken any rules; in fact, it would appear that in many instances, their claims were not only approved, but actively encouraged by administrators. This has all been going on for years without anyone getting in much of a commotion about it. Besides, the padding of expenses is a problem that is hardly unique to poilitical circles - the private sector has just as many problems to deal with, and the media industry itself is hardly whiter than white. So is this all a fuss about nothing? Not exactly. There are some real issues here, especially around how to maintain public trust. There are also many lessons to be learnt about business ethics too - particuarly in terms of the limits to compliance systems in managing ethics, and the importance of getting to the deeper problems of how institutions are governed. Some of these points are dissected nicely in some recent posts on the Added Values blog by the folks in the Professional Ethics Network at the University of Leeds. They also link to a nice little interview clip from everyone's favourite Twitter-er Stephen Fry.

Another way of looking at this is to try and understand why such problems have gone on for so long, and how such a culture of corruption ever managed to get cemented into the heart of government in the UK. One of our favourite concepts in exploring institutionalised bad behaviour is "rationalization tactics", as described by Anand et al in the Academy of Management Perspectives. It doesn't take much effort to see in the case of MP's expenses some clear examples of how processes such as incrementalism, socialization, and cooptation have successively socialized MPs into unethical behaviour ... and how rationalizations such as appealing to higher loyalties and balancing the ledger have given them the kinds of excuses that deny wrongdoing and keep everyone in a state of denial. Of course, if we follw this path, the obvious solution that comes to mind therefore, is a fundamental culture change, a new broom in the dusty cupboards of Parliament. But for that, it's going to take a whole lot more than the rhetoric we've heard so far.

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