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Compliance Monitoring: A Failed Approach For Building Ethical Public Service Organizations

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Jacobs
June 5, 2015

The ASPA Code of Ethics (2013) espouses eight principles that “public servants should advance…and [be held] accountable for adhering to these principles.”

That represents good practice in theory. But holding those in public service accountable for failing to advance and adhere to ethical principles isn’t quite as easy and straightforward as many believe.

One solution—compliance monitoring—doesn’t seem to work.

A Case: The General Inspector Act

In 1978, Congress passed the General Inspector Act (GIA) with the goal of ending unethical conduct on the part of federal employees through “compliance monitoring.” However, for nearly 40 years that goal hasn’t been achieved.

In a recent example, supervisors at the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) ignored their subordinates’ calls for greater transparency on the part of those supervisors. It was alleged they misspent federal funds as well as hired and promoted unqualified key personnel.

Those subordinates-turned-whistleblowers then reported the alleged misconduct to members of the USMS Office of General Counsel (OGC). They were ignored, despite the fact that if the allegations were proven true, USMS supervisors violated statutory restrictions.‎

Confronting that dead end, the whistleblowers reported their allegations all the way up the chain of command to the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA). The Senator did his homework.

Senator Grassley first established the facts by inquiring of the USMS Director whether extravagant office decorations were purchased. If so, at what cost and were less expensive options considered?

In a second letter addressed to the USMS Acting Deputy Attorney General (ADAG), Senator Grassley inquired whether the then-Deputy Assistant Director of the Asset Forfeiture Division (DAD-AFD) influenced subordinates to waive qualification requirements. The DAD-AFD’s goal? To ensure that the USMS hiring officer would select the director’s preferred, but unqualified, candidate for a highly-paid contract position. Compounding this problem, the DAD-AFD allegedly did so while the director was concurrently considering the DAD-AFD for her current position as assistant director, the highest-ranking AFD post.

Senator Grassley’s staffers then discovered that the Department of Justice (DOJ) responded falsely to the Senator’s inquiry. DOJ corrected the record, admitting that it “may have provided…inaccurate information.” Along with this letter, DOJ also surrendered emails exchanged between the Director and then-DAD-AFD. The emails supported the whistleblowers’ claims.

In a third letter, Senator Grassley reflected, “This revelation calls into question the ability of the U.S. Marshals Service to thoroughly investigate improper behavior of its own leadership.”

How could this failure of ethical leadership happen? 

An Assessment

In The Responsible Administrator, Terry L. Cooper describes the problems associated with the “many hands” and “dirty hands” that go undetected until it’s too late. Then, media reports hype the misconduct which further erodes confidence in government. In response, politicians legislate tougher workplace rules and regulations that impose even more onerous sanctions and penalties.

Jacobs juneWhy doesn’t this approach work?

Clegg and Bailey have observed that a machine bureaucracy—such as USMS—emphasizes a strict chain of command. One reason GIA failed is that supervisors assess whether their subordinates are complying with the letter of the law as well as the organization’s code of conduct.

This top-down approach emphasizes a low-level understanding of ethical development, one that is characterized by the imposition of substantial sanctions and penalties for violating the terms of a contract. In Organizational Misbehavior, Ackroyd and Thompson argued that this approach encourages members of organizations not to curtail unethical conduct but to be more creative in concealing it.

A Prescriptive Resolution

The ASPA Code envisions public administrators as possessing a high-level understanding of ethical development. It is evident in public service organizations that are characterized, as Dan Lefebvre would suggest, not by a chain of command that’s governed by the terms specified in a code of conduct but by a “chain of consent” that’s governed by the shared principles of a “covenant of trust” between supervisors and those supervised.

In this organization, the Code’s principles provide authoritative guidelines that all members advance individually and collectively in the decision-making process. All members hold themselves mutually accountable to these shared principles, as they provide the substantive backbone of that covenant of trust. As this culture becomes increasingly normative, a more ethical public service organization emerges, one whose members exhibit increased levels of ethical competence.

But, what about advancing and adhering to ethical principles?

If public administrators are going to build more ethical public service organizations, then they need to go beyond compliance monitoring. How? By hiring and/or training supervisors who demonstrate ethical competence. Then, once on the job, public administrators must hold accountable any supervisor who fails to advance ethical principles, as the ASPA Code requires.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a professor of public administration at Villanova University. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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