Dissertation: The ingredients of good public service – and how to fail with them

Pia Viklund
Good public service requires not only the self-knowledge and self-management of the public servant, but also the rule- and value-based tools from the organisation, reveals Pia Viklund's doctoral dissertation.

– Role and value conflicts, ambiguous power-responsibility issues, the complexity of the government environment, political influence and ambiguities in norms are examples of factors that civil servants cite as undermining good civil service, says Viklund, who will defend her thesis publicly at the University of Vaasa on 18 February.

Viklund's dissertation examined good public service and its determinants, and bad public service from an integrity perspective.

Integrity contains something good, right and proper

Integrity is an ambiguous concept that is usually used without defining it. Four approaches to the definition of integrity were identified: integrity as the virtues and character traits of the individual, integrity as action in accordance with values and ethical principles, integrity as consistency of words and actions, and integrity as the wholeness of the individual.

Integrity can be approached not only from the perspective of the individual, but also from the perspective of a culture, organisation, profession or system.

However, according to Viklund, integrity was identified as always containing something good, right or appropriate. Therefore, the concept of good, right or appropriate public service was used as a proxy for integrity in the data collection for the study.

The recipe for a good civil servant includes a desire to act in the public interest

The results of the dissertation research led to an interpretation of what constitutes good public service and the factors that influence it.

Viklund says that the interpretation of good public service includes several aspects of a public servant's skills, behaviour, practices, lifestyle and desire to develop. Another key aspect is a civil servant's willingness to act in the public interest. However, what was meant by the public interest varied widely.

The factors that contribute to and weaken good public service were related to the individual, the organisation and management. For example, self-management skills and competencies of the civil servant, an organisational culture that supports good performance and leading by example were perceived as factors that contribute to good performance.

Poor civil servants behave inappropriately and pursue their own interests

Similarly, bad behaviour and a poor attitude, political influence, unclear organisational structures and performance management, and incompetent leadership were mentioned as factors that undermine good civil service performance.

According to the results of the Viklund study, poor civil service performance, or integrity violations, can be either intentional or unintentional. Its forms included self-interest, poor performance of official duties and inappropriate behaviour.

The organisation enables and ensures

The fact that an official wants to do the right thing is not always enough. Organisational structures, processes, job descriptions, standards and indicators, among other things, play a role in enabling - or ensuring - good behaviour.

A balance between the use of rules-based and values-based tools that promote good practice can be the key to the realm of good practice.

– We need norms and guidelines, but we also need discussions on values and ethics, and time for collective reflection and the search for common understanding on issues related to good behaviour and conduct, says Viklund.

According to her doctoral dissertation, organisational culture that supports good performance includes a common value base, shared responsibility, psychological safety, trust, open discussion and addressing maladministration.

In the case study, leadership, managing the big picture and skills in regulating emotions emerged as important traits of frontline staff and management that contribute to good performance.

The data for the survey was collected in 2018–2019 from civil servants in the Ministry of the Interior’s administrative branch. The target organisations of the survey were the Ministry of the Interior, the Emergency Response Centre, the Finnish Border Guard, the Finnish Immigration Service and the Emergency Services Academy Finland. The data was collected using two methods, anonymous narratives of the civil servants and thematic interviews.

Doctoral dissertation

Viklund, Pia (2022) Monitulkintainen integriteetti: sisäasiainhallinnossa työskentelevien näkemyksiä hyvästä julkisesta toiminnasta. Acta Wasaensia 481. Väitöskirja / Doctoral disseration. Vaasan yliopisto / University of Vaasa.

Publication pdf: https://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-395-011-5

Public defence

The public examination of M.Sc. Pia Viklund’s doctoral dissertation "Monitulkintainen integriteetti : sisäasiainhallinnossa työskentelevien näkemyksiä hyvästä julkisesta toiminnastawill be held on Friday 18 Feb 2022 at noon at the University of Vaasa.

The defence will be organised online: https://uwasa.zoom.us/j/68553177453?pwd=b05RcXhaRStCR0p3MDFSVk5HdzNVUT09   Password: 869783

Docent Elias Pekkola (Tampere University) will act as an opponent and Professor Esa Hyyryläinen as a custos. The defence will be held in Finnish.

The dissertation is available online in the Osuva publications archive starting 8 February 2022: https://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-395-011-5

Further information

Pia Viklund, +35840 933 8668, viklund.pia (@) gmail.com or pia.viklund (@) jamk.fi

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