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From Virtue to Competence: Changing the Principles of Public Service


Michael Macaulay is Head of the Centre for Public Services Management at the University of Teesside in the United Kingdom. He has a background in political philosophy and has been involved in national and international research projects on ethics and governance. His current research addresses the interface of political philosophy and public policy, and he has published articles on local government ethics and the use of Machiavelli in management literature. E-mail:

Alan Lawton is Reader in Public Management and Policy in the School of Public Policy at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. He has extensive experience in local government research in the areas of strategic management, performance management, and performance measurement, as well as ethics in the public sector. His publications include Ethical Management for the Public Services (Open University Press, 1998), and Public Services Management (Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 1999). Other work has included designing codes of conduct for the governments of Lithuania and Ethiopia.E-mail:


Virtue has long been a central principle in the tradition of public service—to what extent is it still relevant today? Focusing on the role of the monitoring officer, a key official in the ethical framework of local government in the United Kingdom, this essay asks which virtues, if any, are still needed for public service and whether these virtues have been displaced by managerial notions of technical competence as the principles of public service delivery. The authors draw an initial distinction between virtue and competence that, upon further investigation, does not appear to be sustainable. Despite being drawn from two different academic perspectives—moral philosophy and management development—the concepts of virtue and competence are, in practice, very similar. This theoretical convergence is reflected in the practical concerns of monitoring officers and their perspective on public service ethics.