Ethics in public administration

Ethics in public administration

In the public sector, ethics addresses the fundamental premise of a public administrator’s duty as a “steward” to the public. In other words, it is the moral justification and consideration for decisions and actions made during the completion of daily duties when working to provide the general services of government and nonprofit organizations. Ethics is defined as, among others, the entirety of rules of proper moral conduct corresponding to the ideology of a particular society or organization (Eduard). Public sector ethics is a broad topic because values and morals vary between cultures. Despite the differences in ethical values, there is a growing common ground of what is considered good conduct and correct conduct with ethics. Ethics are an accountability standard by which the public will scrutinize the work being conducted by the members of these organizations. The question of ethics emerges in the public sector on account of its subordinate character.  Decisions are based upon ethical principles, which are the perception of what the general public would view as correct. Ensuring the ethical behavior in the public sector requires a permanent reflection on the decisions taken and their impact from a moral point of view on citizens. Having such a distinction ensures that public administrators are not acting on an internal set of ethical principles without first questioning whether those principles would hold to public scrutiny. It also has placed an additional burden upon public administrators regarding the conduct of their personal lives. Public sector ethics is an attempt to create a more open atmosphere within governmental operations.

John Rohr, in defining bureaucrats as public administrators, approaches ethic standards in government as a requirement due to the nature of the work of administrators. He writes, “because bureaucrats govern through authority that is discretionary, and because they are not elected, the ordinary means of popular control are inapplicable”. Rohr assumes that public administrators are working to benefit the general public’s needs. When an elected official does not act in line with the public’s expectations, they can be removed from office. However, public administrators are protected with due process rights as government employees, and ethical violations can be difficult to justify the removal of a person from an office.  Many questions about how ethics should be addressed in government exist. According to Cody and Lynn, the debate centers on the extent to which one would like to detail ethical standards. For example, they cite the general litmus test for administrators regarding whether or not they would like to hear about their actions on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper. That is, a public official should gauge their decisions by how he/she would interpret the public scrutiny should his/her decision appear on the front page of the next day’s newspaper. If it would be viewed as a problem by the public, then the administrator should refrain from the action in question.

The Honest Person Rule: Unless there is an underlying honesty within people, a set of ethical rules is meaningless. This supporting argument for the general guidelines maintains that for ethical standards to be practical an individual must be ethically sound from the beginning. As Cody and Lynn point out, it is possible for a public official to act unethically, but not be personally dishonest. The litmus test example and the Honest Person Rule are broad standards without much definition. As a consequence, broadly defined ethical standards are difficult to assess regarding concerns of ethical violations. In order to have greater accountability, more specific standards are needed, or a statement of applied ethics.  To further provide some definition, Rohr classifies ethics in government with some of the approaches that have been taken. The USDA devised a system where employees were asked questions and then asked to rank the actions as permissible, not permissible, and permissible with prior written approval. Rohr argues that this type of approach, known as the Low Road merely places an understanding of what not to do in order to steer clear of trouble . This approach does not assist an employee in providing a standard for what is truly ethical behavior.

The High Road, according to Rohr, is the basis of decisions upon a pursuit for social equity, which is based upon political philosophy and humanistic psychology.  Rohr finds problems with both the Low Road and High Road approaches and bases his argument on regime values, or “the values of that political entity that was brought into being by the ratification of the Constitution that created the present American republic”. He contends that regime values are built upon three considerations:

  • Ethical norms should be derived from the salient values of the regime;
  • These values are normative for bureaucrats because they have taken an oath to uphold the regime
  • and These values can be discovered in the public law of the regime.

Levels of ethical decision-making

Terry Cooper is an often-cited author in the field of public administration ethics. His book, The Responsible Administrator, is an in-depth attempt to bridge the philosophical points of ethics and the complex workings of public administration. While not revolutionary, his work has become a focal point around which ethical decision-making in the public sector are made. In The Responsible Administrator, he states that public administrators make decisions daily according to a distinctive four-level process. The four levels are:

The Expressive Level: At this stage, a person responds to a situation with “spontaneous, reflective expressions of emotion … which neither invite a reply nor attempt to persuade others”.

 The Level of Moral Rules: This is the first level at which we begin to question actions and begin to look for alternatives and consequences. The responses at this level are often built upon “moral rules we acquire through the socialization process from our families, religious affiliations, education and personal experiences.” Decisions on how to handle the situation are then whittled down based on what we feel is the most appropriate action within our own personal moral bank.

  The Level of Ethical Analysis: There are times when a personal moral code will seem inadequate for the situation, or that the alternatives and consequences do not feel right. When this occurs, a person has entered this level and begins to examine their ethical principles, or “statements concerning the conduct or state of being that is required for the fulfillment of a value; it explicitly links a value with a general mode of action”. Particularly, at this level, one begins to reexamine their personal values, and may eventually disagree with actions to such an extent that they will become “whistleblowers.”

 The Post-ethical Level: At this level, questions arise about one’s view of the world and human nature, how we know anything to be true, and the meaning of life. Here there is a philosophical examination as to why ethical standards are important and relevant to the individual.

The importance of ethics in public administration

Ethics provide accountability between the public and the administration. Adhering to a code of ethics ensures that the public receives what it needs in a fair manner. It also gives the administration guidelines for integrity in their operations. That integrity, in turn, helps foster the trust of the community. By creating this atmosphere of trust, the administration helps the public understand that they are working with their best interests in mind.  Additionally, a code of ethics creates standards of professionalism that co-workers in the public sector can expect from each other — the public can also expect the same from their leaders. With a strong code of ethics in public administration, leaders have the guidelines they need to carry out their tasks and inspire their employees and committees to enforce laws in a professional and equitable manner.

Another positive outcome of good ethics in public administration is timely and informative communication with the community. This kind of transparency builds trust and prevents or minimizes the potential issues that can arise when information is divulged from outside sources. If there is something of consequence that the public needs to know about, it’s better for it to come directly from the leaders and administration. Communication also keeps all parties involved so that they can all work toward a common goal. Good communication ensures that the community can engage their leaders on important issues.


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