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Establishing an Ethics Review Process in ASPA

By James H. Svara

In March of this year at the ASPA annual conference, the National Council approved a bylaws amendment to establish the Ethics and Standards Implementation Committee that would be responsible for overseeing an ethics review process. The complete proposal is available on the ASPA ethics resource page. The members of ASPA will vote on the changes to the bylaws as part of the election of officers and council members in November 2014.

ASPA has had a Code of Ethics since 1984 and the current bylaws permit the National Council to remove members if they violate the code. Still, it has never had a review process that protects the due process rights of members nor has it had a standing committee assigned with the responsibility to support the National Council in reviewing complaints as well as promoting commitment to ethical standards in the public service.

An ethics review process is an essential feature of a fully developed commitment to advancing ethics in professional associations that has long been recognized. A year before ASPA’s founding in 1939, William Mosher (who would become its first president) identified ethics as part of the foundation for a “profession of public service.” In his view, ethics is both an individual and shared responsibility:  “Although each member of the profession is the keeper of the code, its long-run maintenance occasionally calls for disciplinary measures which should be judicially applied by a properly constituted body acting under prescribed procedures against those who violate it.”

When the first code for ASPA was discussed in 1983, William Earle Klay of Florida State University stated that “without some form of meaningful institutionalization, the words [of the code] will be shallow, perhaps to the point of it becoming hypocritical to have ever said them in the first place.” Still the code was approved in 1984 without a review process. Mylon Winn, who chaired the 1994 Professional Standards and Ethics Committee (PSEC) when the code was revised, has argued that ASPA should move beyond the position that “individual administrators should assume personal ethical responsibility for their behavior” guided by the aspirations in the code to using the code as a statement of “shared ethics values that can be enforced.” Stuart Gilman, a later chair of the PSEC, posed this question in 1998:  “Now that we have a revised Code of Ethics, is it to be hortatory, symbolic or enforced?”

We face the same question now. A new code was adopted in 2013. The National Council has endorsed the view that a strong commitment to implementation entails interpreting the code, providing education and training, and instituting a fair review process. The Ethics and Standards Implementation Committee would handle these tasks. It would be a standing committee that fills a gap in ASPA’s organizational capacity to promote ethics after the PSEC was eliminated in 1999.

As noted in the article on the proposed Ethics and Standards Implementation Committee in the April/May/June issue of PA Times, the review process will be multi-faceted including:

  • Responding to requests from members for advice in handling difficult ethical situations.
  • Reviewing requests for help from members who have been penalized for upholding the Code and providing support to them.
  • Recognizing members whose actions exemplify the code.
  • Reviewing and seeking to resolve complaints about a member whose actions may have violated the Code of Ethics.

The first three are important additions to the support and recognition that ASPA provides to its members. The fourth is also intended to be a supportive process, encouraging positive ethical performance as well as examining serious instances of unethical behavior.

The review process is important to strengthening ethics in ASPA because it connects the standards in the Code to real behaviors and deepens understanding of what the Code means in practice. It enables the shift from an “aspirational” code to an “actionable” code that is carried out in the work of public service professionals. It identifies ethical issues that should be examined in educational and training programs of the Ethics Committee and the Ethics Section. The objective is elevating ethical behavior and preventing unethical conduct rather than focusing on enforcement. Offering concrete examples of behaviors that are consistent with the Code and behaviors that fall short of the standards in the Code will support the educational commitment of the Committee.

The formal review process will be developed by the new Committee and approved by the National Council. Based on the proposal it will have these features. It is expected that most of the complaints will be handled through a peer review process with communication between the Committee and the ASPA member. The Committee will seek to clarify the behavior that led to the complaint and, when necessary, encourage voluntary corrective action by the member to demonstrate compliance with the code. With corrective action and monitoring of follow-up, the case will be closed with only a summary provided to the National Council.

If the member refuses to comply or the actions represent a serious violation of the Code with consequences that cannot be corrected, the Committee will investigate the case and assist the National Council in exercising its authority to sanction a member. The Committee could recommend a variety of remedies to the National Council. Depending on the seriousness of a substantiated complaint, the actions could be a private censure communicated only to the member (the most common response of the International City/County Management Association to complaints that are upheld through its review process), a censure stated publically and in extraordinary circumstances removal from the association. The choice will be made by the National Council.

ASPA has the potential to be a leader in ethics for all persons in public service and it can work with other associations of public professionals in promoting complementary approaches to promoting ethics. The prospects of taking on these active roles will be enhanced if ASPA joins other professional associations that have a review process. ASPA members should demonstrate a shared commitment to uphold their Code of Ethics. This would be a fitting step in its 75th anniversary year.

A webinar on “ASPA’s Role in Identifying and Addressing Ethical Issues in Public Service” will be given by Suzanne Piotrowski, chairperson of the Ethics Section, and me on Wednesday, Oct. 29, at 1 p.m. Eastern time. The proposed Committee and review process, new activities in the Ethics Section and current ethical issues will be discussed.


AuthorASPA member James H. Svara, chairperson of the ad hoc Code of Ethics Implementation Committee, is Visiting Professor in the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Comments and questions are invited. He can be reached at [email protected].

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