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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Richard Jacobs
September 4, 2015
In a recent Journal of Management Systems article, Carole Jurkiewicz and Glen Vogel of Hofstra University discuss an ethics audit, defining it as “a rubric for assessing an organization’s ethical compliance and its elements.” Those elements include cultural values, organizational governance and legal compliance. The data generated are compiled into a report identifying the organization’s current state of ethicality. It also highlights areas for improvement as well as provide a benchmark against which future audits can be measured and assessments made.
While an ethics audit provides a tool for public administrators to build more ethical public service organizations, shouldn’t they first audit their personal state of ethicality? After all, ASPA’s Code of Ethics requires public administrators to “demonstrate personal integrity” by adhering to the highest standards of conduct that will inspire public confidence and trust in public service. It would seem that a personal audit would set the appropriate tone—leading by doing—for an organization’s ethics audit.
What might this audit look like?
One approach might utilize the Code’s practices, which specifies eight behaviors that public administrators should exemplify in their conduct. Public administrators would ask themselves: Do I and how do I…
Responses provide the data. However, these data could be unduly subjective, threatening the report’s validity.
Public administrators might also begin by asking their followers to respond to those eight questions. This data would be more objective; however, an Ethics Research Center (ERC) report indicates that followers assess a leader’s ethicality using different criteria.
In the private sector, the most important factor workers correlate with ethical leadership is personal character. Regardless of a company’s size, followers use three criteria to assess this factor:
The report also found that midlevel, direct supervisors demonstrate ethical leadership that can significantly impact followers. Followers indicate ethicality evidencing itself when direct supervisors:
Helpful as this second approach might be, these concepts are vague. They can be interpreted in a variety of ways, threatening the report’s validity.
How might public administrators conduct a personal ethics audit that avoids undue subjectivity and overly vague concepts?
A third approach would restate the practices of Principle #6 in the form of prompts. Public administrators would then invite followers to submit vignettes anonymously for as many prompts as possible. For example, followers would:
Providing followers the opportunity to describe these practices, this audit offers objective and concrete feedback, identifying how public administrators demonstrate personal integrity. The greater the number of responses to each prompt yields data indicating how followers’ perceive their leaders’ personal character evidencing those practices and setting an ethical tone that inspires them to do right things.
Likewise, the fewer the number of responses to particular prompts indicates that followers’ perceive the personal character of their leaders not evidencing those practices. These data challenge public administrators to develop those aspects of character. A future ethics audit can then assess whether and how that has been achieved.
Public administrators can build upon the personal ethics audit by conducting an ethics audit of the public service organizations they lead. The data generated will identify the current state of ethicality present in those organizations and provide followers feedback about how they might develop greater ethical competence throughout the organization. A future ethics audit can assess whether and how that has been achieved.
However, the first and most important step for public administrators—leading by doing—is to invite followers to assess how their leaders demonstrate personal integrity.
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].