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Catherine Staite: How to decide if someone has integrity

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Integrity is an essential element of good governance, as I’ve argued before in LGC. But what do we mean when we say someone has or lacks integrity?

Is it defined by the leader or the follower? Does integrity exist regardless of role? Or is it only shown when people have some sort of power – either the power to act or the power to stop others acting?

One of challenges in assessing the integrity of others is that our judgments are often intuitive and swift, rather than based on careful observation and analysis. Integrity is a determinant of trust, and the way in which we place our trust tends to be intuitive as well.

Is it possible to take a more objective view of integrity? I’d say yes – if we can we identify and specify the key attributes and dimensions which underpin it.

Consistency is clearly one of them. If we know that people mean what they say, take the same approach to similar situations and deliver on their commitments, then we may conclude they have integrity.

But this on its own seems a reductive way of judging integrity – someone may be awful, even if we know what to expect. People can be consistently immoral and self-serving. Alone, consistency is a necessary but insufficient indicator of integrity.

Moral values also appear to be an important foundation for integrity. But you must remember that an individual’s moral values are shaped by personal beliefs, education, experience and culture.

Moral values may then shape opinions we don’t agree with, for instance that it’s the responsibility of political or managerial leaders to control their followers. Perhaps we are more likely to recognise moral values as evidence of integrity if we share them? It’s sometimes comforting to have one’s prejudices confirmed, and much less so to have them challenged.

This suggests that integrity is underpinned by externally-focused social values. We can observe whether people value their staff and partners and recognise their diverse contributions in the service of residents. We can also observe how well leaders help others to make sense of complex ethical and moral issues and challenges that confront local government when demands are rising but resources are continuously shrinking.

We can then add those observations to our other evidence, and judge whether those evident social values are consistently congruent with espoused moral values.

Another question is whether integrity can be observed in people who take a passive approach to challenges, keeping their heads below the parapet in the battles of political, professional and organisational life. Arguably, integrity is an active characteristic, forged in the fire of adversity. It underpins the courage of those who speak out against wrongdoing.

As so many of our judgments about integrity are inevitably subjective and based on values, do we need objective rules-based standards of integrity? The almost universal failure of local authorities’ codes of conduct to prevent bad behaviour, resolve problems and give effective redress to victims, would suggest that rules which are not underpinned by a shared understanding of integrity aren’t much help at all.

If all of that is true, then perhaps we have the answer to the question of what we mean by integrity.

A person with integrity shows consistency of moral and social values, sustained over time and in different contexts, and clearly communicated to others. Leaders who act with integrity are not merely passively virtuous but actively willing to speak up when things go wrong and confront a lack of integrity in others.

Catherine Staite, emeritus professor of public management, University of Birmingham

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