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Why Ethics Codes Succeed or Fail

Does your organization have a code of ethics? Is it effective? How do you know? It is widely believed that ethics codes are desirable, even necessary from a professional perspective. Yet it is very difficult to know with confidence whether or not a code deters unethical behavior and encourages ethical behavior. ASPA member Stuart C. Gilman (2005) has written extensively on this subject. Here are his explanations for why some codes succeed and others fail.

First, successful codes must have clear behavior objectives. The behaviors you want to encourage and discourage should be spelled out.

Second, successful codes must fit with the mission of the agency. A tax collection agency, for example, must be respectful but firm. “They must demand honesty from not only public servants but from the public as well” (61).

Third, codes that are successful must have pragmatic goals; codes that promise too much are not likely to succeed. Codes that promise to end corruption are promising too much—nothing will end corruption, Gilman asserts, we can only hope to control it so it has the least impact on citizens.

Finally, successful codes must be supported by feedback. “Aggregate data such as the number of administrative actions taken or successful prosecutions not only helps administrators understand the effect of their program, but it also provides insights as to changes or necessary resource reallocations that might be necessary” (63).

Why do codes fail? Most codes fail because they raise unrealistic expectations or they try to control too much. Codes that require excessive reporting and tracking can produce cynicism within the organization and among the public. The pursuit of absolute integrity can be a fool’s pursuit if the result is organizational ineffectiveness. A shift in political leadership can also bring a working code to its knees. “It is not uncommon for new political leaders to either de-emphasize ethics programs or to criticize them as being ineffective (65). Finally, codes can fail if there is no notion of a professional public service or if they simply get old. Changes in technology, the legal structure, or the organizational culture that occur over time require a continuous examination of the code of ethics.

Is your code successful?

Source: Stuart C. Gilman (2005). “Ethics Codes and Codes of Conduct as Tools for Promoting an Ethical and Professional Public Service: Comparative Successes and Lessons.” Paper prepared for the PREM, the World Bank, Washington, DC

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About Donald Menzel

ASPA member Donald C. Menzel is president of Ethics Management International and a former ASPA president. Email: donmenzel@verizon.net

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