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The Threat is Real: what it means for civil servants when social norms and the law do not align

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church

Image credit: Hatem–Tunisialive

In late 2019, I travelled to Kampala to work with the DFID and EU supported Strengthening Uganda’s Anti-Corruption and Accountability Response (aka SUGAR) Technical Assistance Facility. My colleague, Dr Teddy Atim, and I were tasked with figuring out why, after five years of supporting the implementation of the 2009 Anti-Corruption Act, public servants convicted of corruption were still not routinely removed from the payroll as dictated by the Act. The process identified a fascinating labyrinth of factors, yet what I was particularly struck by was the untenable position these anti-corruption expectations put on civil servants. To put it bluntly, for civil servants to apply the law within the government the way it ought to be applied puts them at real risk – personally and professionally.

The threat is personal: Familial excommunication

Public servants face very real personal consequences for doing their jobs according to the rules. In this case, if a civil servant ignores a request for leniency or help from their personal network or family and implements legislated administrative sanctions (see Section 46 of the Anti-Corruption Act) against a convicted colleague, the civil servant faces excommunication from their family.

Our inquiry used participatory analysis with representatives of each of the main offices responsible for administering sanctions under the Act, including the Inspectorate of Government (IG), Justice Service Commission (JSC) and the Public Service Commission (PSC). It was on the second day when we were diving into the topic of social norms that drive particular behaviors that the extent of the fear of not meeting these expectations became so clear to me.

One of the social norms that we identified was the expectation of civil servants “to act in a way that protects their own.” To confirm that we have identified a social norm and not a value or custom, for instance, we ask people to describe potential sanctions that would be used against someone who did not adhere to the norm.

In this case, we broke everyone into small groups and asked them to discuss whether it was possible to say no to a request to use their role as public servants to protect “one of their own” (i.e. neighbor’s son, second cousin, etc.). The reaction of one of the younger professional women sticks with me: she physically recoiled at the thought of saying no to a request for assistance from a family member – even when that crossed the legal or ethical line. In hearing the question, she instinctively crossed her arms in a protective manner, leaned back in her chair and pulled her crossed legs slightly up towards as though her whole body was repelled by the very idea. In response to the question she simply said, “No, it couldn’t be done.”

Her small group vigorously agreed, explaining that not helping was simply not an option. In response, I asked them, “But if you did refuse to help a family member, what would happen the next time you went home?”

The same young woman quickly quipped, “You would have the decency to not go!”

Several other members offered detailed stories describing how one’s personal network would systematically exclude them if they breached this norm. The message could not be clearer – one’s personal extended network expects a public servant to look after them in their time of need. And this pressure, as well as the impending negative consequence, is weightier than the professional expectations, code of conduct, and the law for members of the JSC, PSC or IG who are collectively responsible for removing a convicted civil servant from payroll.

The threat is professional: being fast-tracked out of your job

There is also a professional threat to a civil servant that is associated with following procedure and implementing Section 46. Drawing from our causal loop map analysis, it is clear that Section 46 is regularly undermined by a cycle of political interference which fuels acts of retribution; one where, perversely, the same anti-corruption mechanisms are used to drive the offending party out of their job.

Appropriate administrative action is often delayed or stopped by actions taken by officials, politicians, and/or “godparents.” These tactics may be informal, but also often include formal institutional processes to prevent a convicted individual from being sanctioned. When no action is taken, the convicted and accused individuals are able to remain in public service.

This sets the stage for acts of retribution against those colleagues who aided in the court process or attempted to implement the appropriate administrative sanction. For instance, if a civil servant has been a witness in the case of an accused colleague who is then not removed from the workplace, they have to continue to serve with each other after the trial.

The public servants who participated in our process asserted that it was just a matter of time before the individual who was not removed (and their network) will “make a move against you. They will wait for you to make one mistake and then take action; frame you and try to fast-track you out of the system.” Ironically one of the most popular ways to attack is through a corruption allegation, where the formal anti-corruption processes are then brought to bear against the individual. In these circumstances, colleagues and peers are seen as being as much of a threat as those higher in the hierarchy.

The fear of retribution that all of these actions create, is a powerful motivator for public servants to act with caution; ideally not acting at all. As one public servant explained, “Staff don’t want to speak out against other staff, because what happens to you in the future? People don’t want to be responsible or blamed for other people’s problems or getting them in trouble, even if the person has been convicted of doing something wrong. If a public servant did anything that was perceived to have victimised a colleague, when that public servant gets in a bind, no one will stand up for them.”

What was the methodology?

This is the second post based on the 2020 report “Understanding the Underlying Values, Norms and Behaviors Constraining the Implementation of Administrative Sanction in the Ugandan Public Service.” The first post looked at the social norms (AKA unwritten rules) that undermine application of administrative sanctions within the Ugandan government. The work is a product of a participatory systems analysis, using causal loop mapping, conducted with a cross section of civil servants from the JSC, PSC, and others involved in implementing administrative sanctions. As part of the analysis, social norms were teased out and then verified in a separate participatory exercise.

It was this experience that sparked our current inquiry into the role social norms play within the civil service. If this topic interests you, we would suggest checking out “Orders from Above: Curated Resources Exploring Social Norms and Public Authorities.”


About the Author

Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is the Co-Director of the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program at Fletcher which works to improve the effectiveness of anti-corruption programming in contexts of endemic corruption. She is the Founding Principal at Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, a social enterprise committed to catalysing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence. She has significant experience working on issues related to accountability and learning across the Balkans and West and East Africa. As a Professor of Practice at Fletcher, she teaches on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning.


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