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Ethics in Public Management Education

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

By Alicia Schatteman
January 27, 2015 

The State of Illinois, like many states around the country, is home to its share of corruption in public service. We tend to only hear about the big cases like the $54 million fraud case in Dixon, Illinois or how former Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, was convicted of trying to sell then Senator Barack Obama’s senate seat. These cases, which are played out in newspapers, websites and television, help to further chip away at the public’s trust of government.

According to Pew Research, trust in the federal government remains at an historic low of 24 percent, a steady downward trend since Pew starting tracking trust in government in 1954 when it was 73 percent. What’s happened since then?  Is there more temptation to choose unethical behavior, less sanctions for ethical behavior, higher expectations for ethical behavior or a combination of all three? What can public management programs do to support ethical behavior of public servants?

schatteman jan 2As a state university, Northern Illinois University is now subject to the 2009 Illinois Governmental Ethics Act and State Officials and Employees Ethics Act. Part of this law requires all state employees to take an ethics test every fall. This is one way to draw attention to possible conflicts and ethical challenges by state workers and elected officials. However, we need to train our future public service leaders on the importance of ethics and transparency to support transparency and build public trust in government.

At Northern Illinois University, our MPA program has undergone many curriculum changes to address ethics and other competencies as outlined by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA). NASPAA “is the membership organization of graduate education programs in public policy, public affairs, public administration and public & nonprofit management,” according to its website. NASPAA’s 2009 accreditation standards moved toward an outcome-based approach, focusing on student learning specific competencies as they relate to public management. They specifically outlined five universal competencies that graduates of all accredited programs should demonstrate the ability to:

  1. Lead and manage in public governance.
  2. Participate in and contribute to the policy process.
  3. Analyze, synthesize, think critically, solve problems and make decisions.
  4. Articulate and apply a public service perspective.
  5. Communicate and interact productively with a diverse and changing workforce and citizenry.

Each program will then further define learning outcomes for each competency. Other schools have adapted their programs similarly such as James Madison University, a case written in the Journal of Public Affairs Education.

The faculty of the MPA program at Northern Illinois University created 14 specific learning outcomes from these five universal competencies. Specifically, competency #10 says that upon completion of the MPA degree, students should be able to incorporate professional codes of ethics in public service decision-­making to enhance integrity of public services.” To ensure that our students are meeting these learning outcomes we created a multi-prong approach to measure this competency:

  1. Self-assessment of incoming MPA students where they rank themselves on a scale from not at all, foundation, application or integration based on the Bloom’s Taxonomy and Dee Fink’s Designing Courses for Significant Learning.
  2. In the survey course, we reinforce the program competencies by creating an assignment based on the selection of an ethics framework, and one of the final exam questions asks students to write about their own ethical framework. In this course, students also begin to build their e-portfolio with specific examples of how they have demonstrated the learning competencies in coursework and their internship.
  3. Graduating students also complete the same self-assessment ranking themselves on the same scale (noted above). This same survey is sent to graduates one year and three years after their graduation to further track their learning over time.

As public servants, there a number of ethical frameworks that students can use in their progressions. These include but are not limited to:

In our introductory course, students research these codes of ethics and then make a commitment to follow one of them for their professional career. So as faculty of future public servants, is this enough?  Can we in effect instill ethics and values in our students so they make ethical decisions?

We are about a year into the process but preliminary results are hopeful. We hope that through a very open and deliberative process our students think of ethics as a guide for the way their work at all times.


Author:  Alicia Schatteman is assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs, Department of Public Administration and the Center for NGO Leadership and Development at Northern Illinois University. She received her Ph.D. from the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University, Newark. The author can be reached at www.nonprofitscholar

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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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