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Alternative Approaches to Revising the ASPA Code of Ethics

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Jim Svara, Jim Nordin

The subject of a code of ethics for ASPA has been a
controversial one for several decades.
The current code, which dates back to 1994, is seen by many as outdated
and in need of fundamental revision.
Others feel that revisiting the code, even if it leads to little or no
change in the existing document, has value as a way of reconnecting ASPA
members to the ethical issues addressed in the code. Almost everyone agrees
that 17 years is a long time for a code to exist without a thorough review. To
this end, ASPA leadership has created a working group co-chaired by James
Nordin and James Svara to explore the current code and report back on how to
proceed with changes to the code.
The committee is broadly representative of ASPA membership and includes
a number of individuals with expertise in the area of ethics.

The committee has had lively exchanges among its members and
in open meetings with ASPA rank and file at the Baltimore conference. At that meeting it was agreed that it
would be useful to have a “point–counterpoint” exchange on how extensive the
changes to the code could and should be.
These essays are
polemics in the sense of presenting a one-sided argument, with the recognition
that the other side will have an equal opportunity to present its view that a
more comprehensive change is best.

Arguments in Favor of Rewriting the Current Code

Ginny Wilson,
University of Kentucky

The major argument for a significant rewrite is not based on
disagreement with contents of the existing code, which lists a set of admirable
behaviors for all public servants (and, indeed, all citizens), but on an
assessment that the existing document is not the most effective tool ASPA could
use to increase the likelihood that members will incorporate ethical
considerations as a primary factor in their professional choices. The “rewrite”
being suggested here would not entail developing a different list of ethical
rules than the existing code, but would distill the existing rules into the
basic underlying principle to be used as the core test of actions taken by all
public servants:

All professional actions should be accountable for promoting the public
interest above serving oneself.

All individual elements in the existing code arise from this
central ethical principle. “Promoting the public interest” implies
transparency, efficiency, fairness, civility, competence, and other features of
effective public administration. The rewrite proposal is that the simple
statement above become the official ASPA code of ethics. There are three major
arguments that this approach could be more effective in increasing ethical
awareness among members.

  • It is simple. The basic test for
    evaluating the ethics of a decision by any public official could be quickly,
    widely, and repeatedly disseminated to remind public servants that they should
    evaluate each action they takeas to whether it
    serves their personal interests above the public interest. The current code
    fails the KISS test (keep it simple, stupid) and it is likely that an
    incremental revision would result in a longer and more complex list of
    individual rules that would be more difficult to remember and, therefore, less
    likely to be considered on the fly. The most important challenge is not to get
    everyone to follow the same rules; the most important challenge is to get
    public servants to remember to incorporate relevant ethical considerations into
    their daily decision making.
  • It is dynamic and allows consideration of
    the ethical implications of consequences.
    While a list of ethical rules can
    be promulgated by organizations, individuals must develop the capacity to
    evaluate the particular situations they face according to their own assessment
    of how conflicts between competing ethical guidelines should be prioritized and
    how expected consequences can be incorporated into decisions ethically. A
    static listing of ethical rules does not adequately support development of an
    ability to analyze and balance competing ethical values in an environment with
    constantly changing consequences. The relevant ethical test is whether, after
    consideration of consequences, the public interest was prioritized above
    personal interests.
  • It is broadly applicable. It has been
    discussed that the existing code may not adequately address the ethical
    guidelines appropriate for various subsets of ASPA members, such as faculty,
    students, international practitioners, and members of other professional
    organizations. To specifically address the ethical situations encountered by
    such individuals a revision would be expected to increase in length and
    complexity. The simpler ethical statement could be used effectively by all
    these groups to assess their own behavior within their individual contexts. If
    students were to assess whether plagiarizing a report subordinates the public
    interest to their own, the answer is pretty clear. Additional stated rules
    about honesty and integrity would not likely change the targeted behavior. A
    specific rule saying “don’t steal from the public” is not likely to change the
    behavior of a thief presented with the opportunity to steal.

The rules contained in the existing (or even an expanded)
code could be effectively used along with other types of training materials and
activities to help individuals gain practice in incorporating specific ethical
considerations into their own particular situations. But what is most needed
from ASPA at this time is not a longer or more complex list of rules, but a
simple and direct marketing strategy that encourages members to remember to
always consider whether their individual professional actions meet the basic
ethical test for all public servants – that the professional decisions they
make do not benefit themselves at the expense of the public who pays them.

Revisiting the ASPA Code of Ethics: The Case for Incremental Change

Jeremy F. Plant, Penn
State Harrisburg

The chief arguments for limited and incremental change are
based largely on the strengths of the existing code:

  • The code is fundamentally sound. Its chief virtue is its organization
    around five pillars of ethical conduct in public service: serving the public interest; respect
    for the constitution and the law; demonstrating personal integrity; promoting
    ethical organizations; and striving for professional excellence.
  • The code has become institutionalized. Research has shown that it is commonly
    used in MPA courses, is increasingly relied upon by practitioners as a guide in
    professional activities, and serves as the most generic and sweeping statement
    of ethics in governance of any professional code.
  • No significant groundswell of opposition to the
    code has emerged since its adoption.

    Criticism exists but has not led to a major effort among ASPA members to
    change or abolish it. Tampering
    with it may create unnecessary conflict and divisions within the association.
  • The code can be improved by providing for a
    mechanism for continuous upkeep.
    will avoid the criticism that it is static and out of touch with the operating
    realities of the field.
  • The code fits well with the type of professional
    association ASPA represents:
    broad-based umbrella without specialization or credentialing.

What is needed is not a fundamental reorganization or
rewriting of the code, but a significant update with incremental changes to
represent important drivers of change in the environment of public administration. The process, now underway led by a
broadly representative group of ASPA members is itself beneficial by
stimulating interest in and knowledge of the existing code. The most logical approach is to accept
the continued relevance of the five major principles – Serve the Public
Interest; Respect the Constitution and the Law; Demonstrate Personal Integrity;
Promote Ethical Organizations; and Strive for Professional Excellence. Then, the focus can be on the more
specific explanatory or illustrative statements which follow from each major
principle. These are now stated as
imperatives: exercise, promote,
oppose, respond, understand, eliminate, encourage, accept, allocate, enhance, recognize,
subordinate, respect, guard, maintain, ensure, work to improve, provide,
conduct, take responsibility. In
each of the five major categories there are between four and eight such
hortatory statements. Should this
approach remain the best way to illustrate the broad principles, or should
there be examples, either based on real or hypothetical situations, to educate
ASPA members on acting ethically in specific situations or context?

These numbered statements in the code form the basis for
understanding the meaning of the broad principles in the practice of public administration. They provide a link between the broad
ethical principles and the practice of the profession. Still, some sound dated. For example, in the first canon of
Serve the Public Interest, statement two might better read “Oppose all forms of
discrimination and harassment, and promote diversity
than the present wording of promoting “affirmative
,” which is only one means of promoting and managing diversity. Some are irrelevant or inoperative for some
members, for example elected officials or appointed agents who cannot be
expected to “conduct official acts without partisanship.” In other areas,
outside events have changed the nature of professional responsibilities. For instance, what needs to be said
about the use of torture in national and homeland security? Should the code continue to be based
largely on deontological and virtue ethics, or admit to elements of
consequentialism in defense of the nation? Should there somewhere be an explicit recognition
of the need to acquire ethical competence, as part of the striving for
professional excellence? By
focusing the attention of the working group and involved ASPA members on these
points, the code will indeed be the living document that every professional
association requires.

Share your views with
the task force by contacting Jim Nordin [
[email protected] ] and Jim Svara [[email protected] ] or joining a breakfast forum on the Code
at the SECOPA conference in New Orleans, Friday, September 23, at 7:00 a.m.

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One Response to Alternative Approaches to Revising the ASPA Code of Ethics

  1. Retired DoD Reply

    September 21, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    Rewrite to simplify, the role of civil servants is to execute the agency mission within the law, honestly, using due process, without the taints of personal agenda or gain, favoritism, or unlawful discrimination. The old one was obviously the work of a committee, heavy with compromise and “I want this in..”, with a lot of duplication. Try making every aspect (there should only be 3-4) of the ethics code measurable….

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