One of the biggest challenges facing government agency administrators involves establishing and maintaining standards for ethical behavior by employees. In an era in which public distrust and cynicism about government and public officials are at all-time highs, public administration ethics serve as reminders that officials’ decisions and actions should be based on the principle of serving the public rather than themselves.
George J. Gordon and Michael E. Milakovich, authors of "Public Administration in America," write that ethics pose an even more sensitive issue for government than for corporations or other private sector organizations because government, by definition, must serve all interests in a society. Ethical behavior by public administrators and their employees enhance agency effectiveness, foster better relations between government agencies and the public, and improve employee morale. However, the authors concede that public cynicism about government almost invites public sector employees to be less ethical in their actions.
Public administration ethics are based on the central idea that government officials and employees are stewards of the public. The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA), a national association of government managers and scholars of public administration, outlines a set of ethical guidelines in its code of ethics. This code states that ASPA members should be committed to serving the public interest, respecting the law and constitution, demonstrating personal integrity, promoting ethical organizations and striving for professional excellence.
Serving the Public Interest
Government employees and administrators are entrusted with public resources. Proper ethical behavior dictates that public sector workers act in such a way that best serves the interests of the public. This includes opposing all forms of discrimination, supporting the public’s right to know what is being done on its behalf, involving citizens in policy decision-making, communicating to the public in a clear manner and assisting citizens in their dealings with government agencies.
Respecting the Law
Democratic governance operates within a framework of laws that sets the boundaries of government action. ASPA’s Code of Ethics calls on public administrators to understand and apply laws and rules that affect their profession, work to improve counterproductive laws and policies, establish procedures for proper handling of public finances, support financial audits of agencies, protect privileged information and promote constitutional principles of due process, equality and fairness.
Government employees can inspire citizen confidence in public agencies through their behavior. This lends greater legitimacy to government actions. ASPA’s Code of Ethics calls on members to demonstrate their integrity by maintaining honesty, guarding against all conflicts of interest and the appearance of such conflicts, respecting others and conducting public business without partisanship.
In addition to maintaining standards of personal integrity, public administrators should promote ethical behavior on an organizational level by enhancing open communication, subordinating agency loyalties to the public interest, establishing standards for ethical behavior by agency employees and adopting policies that promote organizational accountability.
Common stereotypes of many government employees and managers portray them as lazy, overpaid, incompetent bureaucrats. Ethical behavior in public administration means improving individual capabilities and encouraging professional development in others. ASPA’s code of ethics calls for staying abreast of emerging challenges and encouraging others to participate in professional associations and activities.