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Can Codes of Conduct set realistic ethical standards for officials? Can training in ethics and professional standards make any practical difference in the way public officials behave? Can the notions of ‘ethical competence’ and ‘ethical reliability’ help to identify new ways of thinking about ethical performance on the part of public officials?

These and related questions have been the subject of widespread research over the past two decades. Even so, in seeking to establish ethical standards and norms of professionalism, most public sector agencies today have scarcely advanced beyond the mechanism of the traditional rule-based Code of Conduct, often based on the ‘core values’ of the institution. Such rule-based Codes of Conduct generally aim to prohibit corruption and misconduct, rather than promoting ethical conduct in the exercise of public functions. This U4 Brief outlines the main issues behind these concerns, looks beyond to some of the reasons why traditional methods of managing ethical problems encountered by public officials often fail, and examines how this important deficit might be remedied.