The Culture of Ethics That the Public Sector Needs

Formal codes of ethics are worthwhile, but there is a lot more that can be done, both in government and in schools of public administration.
October 15, 2014
Philip Joyce
By Philip Joyce  |  Contributor
Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy

The current issue of Public Administration Review includes a fascinating article by James Svara of Arizona State University on ethics for public servants. The genesis of Svara's inquiry is the adoption last year by the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) of a revision of its code of ethics.

ASPA first adopted a code of ethics in 1984, but other professional organizations had such codes much earlier, going back (at least in this country) to the International City/County Management Association's code that was adopted in 1924. Svara recounts the history of codes of ethics and reviews the debates about their usefulness. This could not be more timely. Given the seemingly incessant drumbeat of scandals at all levels of government these days, the need has never been greater for a strong culture of ethical behavior in the public sector.

Codes of ethics for public administrators recognize, first and foremost, that administrators are not just neutral implementers of policy. In fact, "filling in the details" of often vague legislation is often left to professional--but unelected--civil servants. As a result, the view held a century ago that bureaucrats simply carry out the details of policy in some kind of a value-free manner has been almost completely discredited. Almost everyone now recognizes that the cop on the beat, the teacher in the classroom and the doctor in a VA hospital have real power to make policy and therefore affect lives.

Moreover, there is a recognition that high-profile cases of corruption and mismanagement can color public perceptions of the legitimacy and quality of government action. To that end, improving the ethical behavior of government employees is fundamental to the legitimacy of democratic governance.

So it is better to be ethical than unethical. Fine. But what is the role of a code of ethics, and what should such a code include? Space does not permit the recounting of the entire 2013 ASPA code, but a few excerpts can communicate the flavor:

• Promote the public interest by putting "service to the public above service to oneself."

• "Strengthen social equity" by treating "all persons with fairness, justice, equality and respect" and reducing "unfairness, injustice and inequality."

• "Demonstrate personal integrity" by adhering to "the highest standards of conduct to inspire public confidence and trust in public service."

Certainly some of these are more controversial than others. Almost no one would argue against personal integrity, but some people would resist the notion that promoting social equity should be an affirmative goal for an unelected public servant. While everyone would agree, moreover, that the public interest should be put above private interests, definitions of the "public interest" are notoriously elastic.

It is not only disagreements about content that lead some to dismiss such ethical exhortations as folly. Some have argued simply that the best way to ensure ethics among civil servants is to hire ethical people into the civil service. Certainly there is some truth to that. For this reason, those of us who teach in professional schools of public administration and public policy struggle with the question of how much we should put ethics into the curriculum. That is, how much difference will it make? Can we really "create" ethical people? In the end, isn't ethics like so many other things--something that people bring with them upon entry to our programs and workplaces?

Perhaps. But given how much the effectiveness of government is compromised when any one civil servant violates the public's trust, it does seem to be worth the effort to attempt to sensitize both current and potential public servants to the differences between ethical and unethical behavior. To that end, I think that both leaders of public organizations and teachers in professional programs have an obligation to spend time and resources on efforts to promote ethical understanding and behavior.

Codes of ethics can help, but I would not stop there. If I were a school principal or a police chief, I would try to anticipate the kinds of specific ethical dilemmas my employees might face and sensitize them to these potential conflicts. Those of us who are attempting to train those in the profession who will confront these challenges should view it as our responsibility to ensure that students understand not just the laws of economics and statistics but what acting in the public interest means. I have found that a few well-chosen case studies can illuminate ethical choices. Among other things, they can communicate that the most efficient solution is not always the best one.

These efforts will not prevent all ethical breaches--they might not even stop most of them. Given the stakes, however, anything that produces even a marginal improvement in ethical behavior seems clearly worth the effort.