You think your government should have integrity, right? Do you also believe that it is filled with crooks and liars? Just a guess…
Integrity means that the government does what it says it’s going to do.
Part of the problem here is a loose definition of integrity. For our purposes, it simply means that a government does what it says it’s going to do. This should be true for the government as a whole (abiding by rule of law), but also for its employees. Integrity rises to the level of a core principle of open government because it ensures that everything else happens the way it’s supposed to, for example, that the Constitution, laws, and policies are followed. This is important for a lot of reasons, but most importantly because it preserves the balance of power between the different branches of government and the citizens. If you know that your government will not abuse its power, then you’re more likely to trust it. If you trust it, then you will spend time working with it, instead of around it. If you trust it, you will also see value in attempting to hold it accountable for its actions. Without trust, why would you waste your time?
First, let’s talk about “rule of law.” This means that no one is above the law and that the law applies equally to everyone — even the government and its employees. Your government should properly follow its constitution, laws, and policies the same way every time by enforcing the law whenever someone breaks it, and by creating a culture of integrity among its employee that includes pride in their jobs and respect for their offices. It takes both enforcement and this culture of integrity to create a government that has integrity in all of its actions.
Whether or not your government has integrity, it most likely is designed to ensure that no one gets too much power. We’ve all heard the expression that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Today’s governments are designed to try to prevent this from happening – this is why we re-elect representatives on a regular basis and have checks and balances between different branches of government. Some governments even pass laws to make sure the public is consulted on new rules or regulations put out by agencies. This makes you, the public, responsible for making sure the government is doing the right thing and not just working for its own interests (or the interests of a few). Integrity makes sure that all of these laws are followed.
Being able to rely on your government enables you to trust it. This happens if you know that the services your government provides are reliable, that the police will help you, that elections are fair, and that the final poll results will be respected by all candidates. This reliability makes it worth your time to go to city council meetings, follow bills as they move through Congress, write a letter to your representative, or point out when your government has done something wrong, aka hold them accountable. This is not the only way that integrity and accountability are linked, however.
Something else that governments do is to establish standards of behaviour against things like over-classifying information, colluding with regulated industries, cronyism, bribes, and politicizing science. It is these standards that you can hold government to account with when they don’t follow their own rules (meaning they aren’t operating with integrity). An open government will be responsive to these critiques and follow the appropriate procedures to investigate and correct the situation. The trust built from this process empowers you to consider not only the government’s actions compared to the established standards, but also to decide whether the standards and the enforcement procedures are sufficient. If you think they aren’t good enough, then you can advocate for new policies or laws to improve the functioning of government.
So, yeah… integrity is kind of a big deal.
The United Nations works to promote rule of law as a fundamental principle at both national and international levels of government. They have an excellent and succinct description of rule of law that includes historical context (starting with Aristotle) as well as modern understanding.