Promoting the Good That Public Institutions Do

A code of ethics should be about more than preventing abuses. It should also promote positive contributions.
August 16, 2017
By James Svara  |  Contributor
Visiting professor at the UNC School of Government and member of ASPA's Ethics and Standards Implementation Committee

In his commentary "Managing the Evil That Institutions Do" in the May issue of Governing, Publisher Mark Funkhouser drew welcome attention to the fundamental ethical responsibility that leaders of public organizations have to prevent harm and correct abuses of power, as expressed so forcefully in the Google mantra "Don't be evil." The importance of that principle cannot be overstated. But in addition to preventing and punishing unethical behavior, it is also important to promote ethical behavior to advance the good that public institutions can and should do.

Where would one start in identifying these ethical responsibilities? The latest version of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) Code of Ethics provides an overarching set of principles that can be used alongside the standards that public organizations set for themselves as well as other specialized professional organizations' codes.

Ethics laws and regulations are fairly consistent at all levels of government. They tend to focus, however, on standards of conduct, preventing the abuse of organizational resources, curtailing personal benefit from public office and avoiding conflicts of interest. These are important expectations but are limited in scope to attributes and behavior linked to personal integrity. Ethics training often focuses merely on learning and complying with an organization's ethics rules. Not only does this approach ignore other, more subtle forms of unethical behavior, as Funkhouser pointed out, but it also omits the advancement of the positive standards that officials and the organizations they lead should meet.

The ASPA code, revised in 2013, does address ways to prevent misconduct. It elaborates on the personal integrity administrators should display and prohibits self-serving conduct. And it examines how organizations should promote accountability by encouraging staff members to openly express their views, protecting dissent and taking action to correct instances of wrongdoing.

But the ASPA code adds to that basic ethics framework with a strong emphasis on the positive contributions that administrators should make. These include advancing the public interest, serving and engaging the public, upholding and improving laws, advancing social equity, and informing and advising superiors. The principles and supporting practices in the ASPA code provide ethical guidance, not rules to obey. Each organization and each administrator needs to consider how they would answer the following questions rooted in the principles of the ASPA code:

• How does the work of the organization contribute to the public interest? Are the long-term interests of the population as a whole being advanced?

• Do staff members demonstrate integrity and put service to the public above service to themselves?

• Do staff members provide accurate, honest, comprehensive and timely information and advice to elected officials, superiors and peers in the organization?

• Do staff members at all levels of the organization display ethical leadership and accept their individual responsibility for setting and upholding ethical standards?

• What is the legal framework for the organization's work and how can it be strengthened?

• What is the organization's performance regarding openness, transparency and engaging citizens?

• How does the organization assess and promote social equity, and what more could be done?

• Is the organization accountable, commmitted to stewardship, open to new ideas and identification of problems, supportive of staff, and diverse and inclusive?

Thus, ASPA and its Code of Ethics promote the motto "Be good" as well as "Don't be evil." We encourage public servants to not only broaden the ethical commitments they display in their work but also to commit themselves to promoting the good that that their institutions can do.

ASPA President Janice Lachance invites public administrators from all levels of government and nonprofits to access the ethics resources available on the ASPA website's Code of Ethics page. The ASPA code can be used with specialized codes, such as the International City/County Management Association's, to provide a comprehensive ethical perspective.