In February 2001, Brazilian newspapers noted something different in Rio de Janeiro's annual Carnival celebration: The public officials who traditionally populated corporate boxes were no longer present. In the past, these high-profile officials received VIP treatment, with private beer companies paying for their airfare, meals, and reserved seating.
The difference hinged on Brazil's year-old Public Ethics Commission. A few months earlier, the commission had published a rule that clarified what gifts, if any, senior civil servants could accept, deeming numerous perks unacceptable because they could bias politically-sensitive decisions.
The rule irked powerful individuals in the private and public sectors. The media exposed three officials who flouted the rule by accepting box seats owned by Brahma beer. The commission reviewed their cases, requested explanations, and issued warnings that discouraged future violations. After the officials apologized, they promised, in writing, to obey the rule in the future. The rule and its enforcement earned public support, with one newspaper survey indicating a 98% approval rating. Senior officials now had to think twice before accepting such perks.
More from Democracy Lab
- The Ukrainian President's Big Broken Promise
- The Heretical Pope Francis vs. Rush Limbaugh
- A Deeper Shade of Orange
Changing ingrained political behavior was no easy task. After Brazil emerged from decades of dictatorship in 1985, pervasive political scandals detracted from the new democratic emphasis on accountability. Politica de favores, or the politics of favors, rendered merit-based hiring, procurement, and privatization uncompetitive and inefficient. Officials accepted bribes thinly disguised as gifts and gave jobs to relatives as a matter of familial allegiance. Without a formal system of government ethics, doing the "right thing" often was considered foolish, impolite, or offensive. Frequent scandals involving nepotism and influence-peddling weakened public trust in government officials and embarrassed successive administrations. Although the constitution of 1988 set stringent rules and harsh penalties regulating civil servants' behavior, they were rarely enforced.
In the mid-1990s, the administration of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso generated a clear impetus for change with a modernization, privatization, and government-reorganization drive. The administration was forced to take action after internal scandals exposed unseemly behaviour by senior government officials and cast public doubt upon the administration's initiatives. "We felt that Brazilian society was changing with modernization and was no longer willing to accept such behaviors," said Cardoso's chief of staff, Pedro Parente.
Cardoso appointed Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira, a well-known Brazilian economist, to spearhead broad civil service reforms and amend the human-resource rigidities of the 1988 constitution. In May 1995, Bresser-Pereira formed the State Council of Reform to devise options for public-sector reorganization. João Geraldo Piquet Carneiro, a former minister in charge of a large-scale de-bureaucratization effort in the 1980s, was one of the earliest council members. Piquet approached like-minded members on the council and quickly brought the issue of officials' conduct onto the agenda. He then created a small team within the council to work on a code of conduct.