Exploring professional ethics for Information Technology Practitioners in municipalities

Professional ethics is becoming more important in the workplace. As professionals become more specialised in their professional occupation, professional bodies have increasingly been busy developing, revising and refining professional codes of ethics.

EXPLORING PROFESSIONAL ETHICS FOR INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY PRACTITIONERS IN MUNICIPALITIES

Udo Richard Averweg

IT Project Manager, Information Management Unit,

eThekwini Municipality, P O Box 828, Durban, 4000

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Introduction

Professional ethics is becoming more important in the workplace. As professionals become more specialised in their professional occupation, professional bodies have increasingly been busy developing, revising and refining professional codes of ethics.

A professional is seen as a person engaged or qualified in a profession. There are many professions found in municipalities and some of these include engineering, nursing and information technology (IT). Professionalism refers to being competent, efficient, masterly and qualified and it imbues its practitioners with a code of ethics and a public service ideal. Ethics are the rules or standards governing the moral code of officials in municipalities and are as important for the public servant as blood is for the body.

Public administration is the enabling activity of government institutions and must be governed by the democratic values and principles enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996). Section 195 (1) of the Constitution lists nine values and principles which are individually numbered from (a) to (i). Section 195 (2) (a) states that all principles apply to “administration in every sphere of government” (Constitution, 1996: p.1331). The first value and principle stated in Section 195 (1) (a) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 is

“(a)  A high standard of professional ethics must be promoted and maintained”. 

This principle is the first focus of this article and is explored in the context of the third sphere of government, namely local government (municipalities). The key phrase contained is this principle is ‘professional ethics’ and will be discussed in a later section of this article. The second focus of this article will be the professional ethics of IT practitioners employed in municipalities in South Africa.

Code of Behaviour

A Code of Behaviour is a set of conventional principles and expectations that are considered binding on a person who is a member of a particular group (such as a professional body or a municipality). An ethical code generally implies documents at three levels:

•     Code of business ethics;

•     Codes of Conduct for employees; and

•     Codes of professional practice.

Sometimes the terms ‘ethical code’ and ‘code of conduct’ are used interchangeably but a distinction should be made. A Code of Ethics sets out the values that underpin the code whereas a Code of Conduct sets out restrictions on behavior and is rules-focused as opposed to principle-focused.

A Code of Practice assists professionals conduct business honestly and with integrity. A Code of Practice (professional ethics) is adopted by a profession to regulate that profession.

 

Professional ethics

Professional ethics are professionally accepted standards of personal and business behaviour, values and guiding principles. Codes of professional ethics are often established by professional organisations in South Africa (for example, the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), the South African Nursing Council (SANC) and The Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) - formerly Computer Society South Africa (CSSA)) to help guide members in performing their work functions according to sound and consistent ethical principles. Ethical principles are the underbelly of professional codes of ethics. The role of a professional code of ethics is to help clarify values and rules and can be used as a framework for discipline. The ‘audience’ is the public domain, employers (such as municipalities) and fellow professionals in the same sector or profession. It should be noted that a code of ethics does not create ethics in a profession – this is achieved through collateral consent.

Most professions have internally enforced codes of practice that registered members of the profession must follow to preserve the integrity of the profession. It also maintains trust in the profession in ensuring that the profession is not undermined by those who may have lower ethical standards. It is important to note that disciplinary codes allow the profession to define a standard conduct and thereby ensure that registered practitioner members meet this standard. If registered practitioners fail to do so, the professional body is able to discipline them accordingly. An example of such disciplinary action is the case (August 2013) of a municipal official (occupying a Head of Health post) who was found guilty of unprofessional conduct by the Health Professions Council of SA – the official was fined an amount of R50,000.00.

In South Africa there are many professional bodies (eg. the Engineering Council of South Africa, the South African Nursing Council and the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa). An importance is placed on practitioners to register with their respective professional bodies so as to be eligible for consideration when applying for advertised post vacancies. From an August 2013 Staff Vacancy circular issued by a municipality, two examples of posts advertised (Senior Manager (Engineering and Records) and Chief Professional Nurse) illustrate the statutory need for professional registration by practitioners:

  •          Senior Manager (Engineering and Records): The essential requirement for this post is registration as a Professional Engineering Technologist (Pr. Technologist) with the ECSA. The preferred requirements for this post is a Professional Engineer registered with the ECSA; and
  •          Chief Professional Nurse: One of the essential requirements for this post is registration with the South African Nursing Council.

As professional registration is an essential requirement for both these advertised posts, it means that the municipality ‘promotes’ professional ethics for both professions. It is therefore important that such posts which are advertised in Municipal Staff Vacancy circulars specify, as the essential requirements, the relevant professional body.  

Municipal Staff Vacancy circulars

Municipal Staff Vacancy circulars often advertise vacant posts for a variety of practitioner sectors and professions and some do not require professional registration either as an essential (or a preferred) requirement for the post. Appointments are made to advertised vacant posts which do not require registration with a professional body (and its associated code of behaviour). While such successful appointees will need to subscribe to a municipality’s code of behaviour and the Batho Pele principles for service delivery purposes (see the White Paper on Transforming Public Service Delivery (Batho Pele), but as the successfully appointed official is not registered with a professional body (and such a professional body may not exist), these appointees cannot claim professional ethics. This appears to be a contradictory practice as it is a statutory requirement for the public administration in a municipality to promote a high standard of professional ethics for its employees (see Section 195 (1) (a) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996).

Public administration is a phenomenon which is practised the government system and its values and principles are enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. This indicates a requirement in appointing officials in municipalities who are registered with professional bodies so that professional ethics are espoused.  

Practitioners in the Information Technology profession

The IT profession contributes significantly to several domains, including business and government. According to the Computing Curricula 2005 (CC2005) report, in “... conceptualizing the role of information systems in the future ... several elements remain important and characteristic of the discipline”. These characteristics evolve around three major areas of the IT profession:

•     IT professionals exist in a broad variety of domains (eg. business, government (bold style added by author), non‑profit organisations) and must design and implement IS solutions that enhance organisational performance;

•     IT professionals must have strong analytical and critical thinking skills to thrive in a competitive global environment; and

•     IT professionals must exhibit strong ethical principles (bold style added by author) and have good interpersonal communication and team skills.

A professional is seen as a practitioner whose practice is based on a significant body of theory, has appropriate tertiary qualifications from a recognised body (in South Africa, usually a university or university of technology), is committed to undergoing continuous professional development, consults good practices before undertaking work, and subscribes to a Code of Behaviour (or Code of Ethics). Professionals in the computing sector “are primarily concerned with the information that computer systems can provide to aid an enterprise in defining and achieving its goals, and the processes that an organisation can implement or improve using information technology” – IT practitioners focus on the information aspects of IT (CC2005: p.14).

The Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA)

The IITPSA is a member of the International Federation for Information Processing, which has an arm called International Professional Practice Partnership (IP3) of which the IITPSA is also a member. The IITPSA also has membership of the South African Bureau of Standards and the National Science and Technology Forum. The IITPSA therefore has a responsibility to monitor and enforce continuing development and maintenance of professional competence of its professional members. Clause 2.3 of the Memorandum of Incorporation and Rules of the IITPSA states that one of the objects of the institute is “to enable practitioners … to develop their skills and further their careers, and to obtain professional recognition”. A professional means “any person practicing or managing the practice of the skills used in the performance of work in the information and communications technology or related sector who subscribes to the Code of Conduct and Rules of the IITPSA”.

The Foreword to the IITPSA’s Code of Practice (Professional Conduct), which is directed to all professional members of the IITPSA, states:

“The Code of Practice deals with the ways in which all members of the Society are expected to exercise their professional competence … for all engaged in the computing profession” – see www.iitpsa.org.za/index.php/codes-of-behaviour

As can be seen, the IITPSA has approved Codes of Behaviour (Code of Conduct and Code of Practice) for adherence by its members. The IITPSA is widely recognised as the professional body for IT practitioners in South Africa. Some IT practitioners in South Africa are registered as professional members of the IITPSA (designated with post-nominals PMIITPSA).

Implications for South Africa municipalities

It is a number of years since the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 was approved. Since then the IT sector and South African municipalities have both undergone a metamorphosis. The time is therefore opportune for reflecting on the current situation of professional ethics of IT practitioners employed as officials in municipalities in South Africa.

A scan of some recent Municipal Staff Vacancy circulars in a selected municipality, reflects that no vacant IT practitioner posts require professional registration with the IITPSA. This may possibly be due to the fact that municipalities are not fully informed as to the IITPSA’s professional status in the IT sector in South Africa. There is therefore a priority need for municipalities in South Africa to ensure that future IT practitioner posts advertised in Municipal Staff Vacancy circulars reflect, as an essential requirement, registration with IITPSA so as to ensure compliance with Section 195 (1) (a) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. This should become a compulsory requirement for all municipalities.

Furthermore those IT practitioners who are already appointed as officials in municipalities, should be encouraged to register with the IITPSA. One practical suggestion for catalysing such encouragement is that the annual IITPSA membership fees for individual officials could be borne by their respective municipalities. The direct spinoff hereof would be that municipalities would be deemed to be ‘promoting’ professional ethics in the computing sector in South Africa.   

Suggested further reading

Computing Curricula 2005 (CC2005), 30 September. The Overview Report. A Volume of the Computing Curricula Series, ISBN 1-59593-359-X.

Republic of South Africa, 1996. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. Pretoria: Government Printer.

Republic of South Africa, 1997. The White Paper on Transforming Public Service Delivery (Batho Pele White Paper). Pretoria: Government Printer.