Glossary of integrity

A person finds themselves in a conflict of interest when they have to exercise their judgement or give a professional opinion (for example, while evaluating a bid in a tender, preparing a medical diagnosis, marking an exam, assessing proof in a legal trial or auditing accounts) for – or on behalf of – another person or body (a patient, a client, a student, a citizen, a group or another public institution) that legitimately trusts the first person’s judgement, but this first person has a particular (private or professional) interest that could interfere with the proper exercise of their responsibility when giving their judgement or professional opinion.

Click the link for more information about: management of conflicts of interest.

The integrity of a public body is the product of the daily actions of each and every person working in or for that organisation: from its chief representative (councillor, mayor, president, director, etc.) to any private-sector company that offers a public service on its behalf and all of their staff. The greater the coherence and consistency between all these actions and the organisation’s principles, values and governing legislation, the greater its institutional integrity.

Consequently, institutional integrity is more than approving an anti-corruption policy or drawing up a code of ethics. It arises when the institution’s operational functioning (policies, processes and procedures, working systems, etc.), ethical standards and strategies for preventing corruption are fully integrated in order to make it possible to achieve the goals (the common interest) for which that institution was created.

To foster institutional integrity, action must be taken on three core aspects of the organisation:

This model of action constitutes the institutional integrity system, which can be graphically represented in the form of a hexagon. This system provides public bodies with a systemic way to:

  • Evaluate organisations’ strengths and weaknesses in these three core areas
  • Devise integrity programmes to improve them

The term National Integrity System (NIS), coined by the organisation Transparency International, is used to describe the set of institutions and practices that define the governability of a country within the framework of an advanced democracy. Controlling corruption is regarded as a part of this integrated approach, as the countries with the best governance – the most democratic, transparent, participative and egalitarian countries – have the lowest rates of corruption and the highest rates of citizens’ confidence in their public institutions and in people in public positions.

Good governance is seen as a way of exercising power in pursuit of the common interest by means of integrated management by the public authorities for sustainable development. It entails citizens’ participation in public decisions and implies adequate accountability both vertically and horizontally. Control from the ground up, by civil society, is just as important as an adequate set of checks and balances between institutions through mutual surveillance and shared responsibility, which ensures that power is distributed and no-one has a monopoly on it.

The twelve institutions that we identify as the most important in this field are: the legislative branch, the judicial branch, the executive branch, the public sector, law enforcement agencies (the public prosecutor’s office, the police and anti-corruption agencies), political parties, the court of auditors, the ombudsman, electoral boards, civil society, the media and the private sector. A well-oiled system should have a government that works for the common good, and not for the particular interests of certain sectors or elite, and a professional and efficient administration. However, it should also have independent and effective oversight bodies, political parties at the service of democracy, free media, responsible companies and a well-informed and engaged citizenry capable of exercising effective social control.

Even when corruption is endemic, there is an element of systemic weakness and the emphasis needs to be placed on structural reforms rather than individual blame.

This holistic formula, based on the study of the functioning and interconnection of the pillars that make up a country’s NIS, makes it possible to better understand its strengths and weaknesses and, above all, helps to direct the necessary reforms correctly. Changes can affect the legal framework that protects us from arbitrariness and abuses, and legal reforms are essential. However, they need to go hand in hand with organisational and bureaucratic adjustments, new codes of leadership and civil reforms.

This is the first of the three core areas of the institutional integrity system. Its aim is to provide direction and guidance to the people working in the institution to ensure they behave in a manner expected of public servants.

The policies, processes and procedures of a public institution define its intentions regarding the way things are to be done in that institution. However, the organisational culture ends up determining the way things are actually performed: the rules or standards that are adhered to, those that are stretched or adapted, and those that are ignored; which behaviour is tolerated and which is not. Popularly, they come to be described as the way things are done ‘here’.

This culture has an impact on the professionalism with which the institution operates, as well as the degree of commitment to preventing corruption, in particular when it comes to using mechanisms to detect and respond to abuses of public power for private benefit, illegal acts or improper behaviour.

The management of this core aspect includes both formal and informal tools, which are developed and implemented through ethical leadership and the organisational culture.

This is the second of the three core aspects of the institutional integrity system. Its aim is to guarantee the organisation’s operational legality and efficiency.

Every public body is created to attain particular goals of common interest. To achieve this, it is given certain powers and resources (materials, staff, finance, etc.). Professional management implies:

  • Designing and communicating policies in which the organisation sets forth its goals in its area of action, while evaluating its ability to match the needs and expectations of the people it serves and the common interest
  • Allocating the available resources on the basis of those policies
  • Equipping itself with working processes and systems that guarantee that its operations are in keeping with the legal framework and with public principles and values
  • Planning the most effective, efficient and economical way to attain the goals set
  • Evaluating the degree of compliance with its goals and the quality of the results and establishing any necessary improvements
  • Being accountable to citizens in an active and intelligible way

This professionalism conditions the institution’s operational functioning: the level of efficiency and legality of the public goods and services supplied and of the public functions pursued by the institution, as well as management of its human resources. And it is crucial to the institution because many of the breaches in its integrity (illegal or simply unethical conduct) and opportunities for corruption occur precisely due to failings in efficiency, planning and communication within the organisation or between institutions, etc.

This is the last of the three core aspects of the institutional integrity system. Its aim is to reduce the probability of the risks of corruption developing into cases of corruption (preventive work), but also to reduce the gravity of the consequences in the event that such cases do arise (work in response to circumstances).

When a public body regulates an ambit of public, social or economic life, there is a risk of corruption; when an authority encourages an activity of common interest (through subsidies, prizes, sponsorship, etc.), there is a risk of corruption; when goods and services are purchased or procured, there is a risk of corruption; when government checks or inspections are carried out, there is a risk of corruption; and when sanctions are applied, there is a risk of corruption.

Every public function is inherently vulnerable to the risk of corruption, that is to say, to the risk that someone might abuse their public post or position for personal gain or for the benefit of another person. For this reason, in the construction of institutional integrity, it is essential to actively engage in corruption prevention through the management of the risk of corruption and by establishing and implementing mechanisms to detect and respond to corrupt, illegal or improper behaviour.

In the context of European Union regulations, irregularity is a broad concept that encompasses infractions by deliberate act or omission that have a detrimental effect on the EU budget. The European Commission emphasises the wide-ranging nature of this concept, pointing out that it covers all irregularities, whether intentional or not.

Drawn up on the basis of article K.3 of the Treaty on European Union, the convention on the protection of the European Communities’ financial interests establishes in article 1 that fraud affecting the Communities’ financial interests in respect of expenditure consists of any intentional act or omission relating to:

  • The use or presentation of false, incorrect or incomplete statements or documents, which has as its effect the misappropriation or wrongful retention of funds from the general budget of the European Communities.
  • Non-disclosure of information in violation of a specific obligation, with the same effect.
  • The misapplication of such funds for purposes other than those for which they were originally granted.

In the words of the European Commission, “It is therefore the component of intentional deceit which distinguishes fraud from irregularity.”

For the purposes of its preventive work, the Anti-Fraud Office defines public corruption as the abuse of a public post or position for private gain.

As part of its anti-corruption policy, the European Union distinguishes the notion of corruption found of criminal law, and hence necessarily stricter, from a broader notion employed in corruption prevention. In this second sense, the European Union employs the definition of the United Nations’ Global Programme against Corruption, which states corruption “is the misuse of power for private gain”. This encompasses power held by occupying a public position or post (public corruption), as well as power in the private sector (private corruption).

The notion of favouritism covers all kinds of practices of preference or illegitimate treatment by a public servant in favour of certain individuals or groups. It includes practices such as:

  • Nepotism or favouritism towards family members
  • Cronyism or practices that favour friends
  • Clientelism or favouritism towards people or groups that have given donations or electoral support of some nature to the political party in power or that is close to the public servant who engages in this practice

Any of these manifestations of favouritism constitutes a particular type of abuse of public power for private gain. That is why we include favouritism in the concept of public corruption.

In colloquial language, risk is commonly associated with danger. Technically, however, risk is the probability of some damage, injury, loss, liability or other effect that is detrimental to a public institution or the common good due to vulnerabilities that may exist inside or outside the organisation.

We regard the risk of irregularity to be the probability that some negligent practice may occur, by intentional act or omission, that is against the law or regulations, which has a detrimental effect in a tender from a bidding organisation or which is contrary to the principles that govern public procurement.

In our legal system, the notion of fraud (fiscal, commercial, etc.) always has two common aspects: the intention and the means to defraud or deceive.

From this perspective, we regard the risk of fraud to be the probability that any deliberate act or intentional omission may occur that is contrary to the law or regulations, which has a detrimental budgetary effect for the bidding organisation.

We regard the risk of public corruption to be the probability that a public servant – a person in a position to which they have been elected or politically appointed or a public employee – may abuse their institutional position for private gain outside of their position. This gain may be:

  • Direct (for the public servant) or indirect (for any person or legal entity connected with the public servant).
  • Present (gain achieved now) or future (the promise or expectation of gain).
  • Monetary or of any other nature: professional promotion, inside information, etc.