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Beyond Ethics: Honor and Public Service

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

By Terry Newell
December 13, 2016

tnEthical behavior is usually seen as the absence of wrongdoing. Ethics standards and laws proscribe certain behaviors but say little about how an ideal public servant ought to behave. Demanding public servants be ethical is not enough. They must be driven by the desire for honor. 

Public Service as a Calling

Ed McGaffigan was the longest-serving commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) when melanoma forced him to step down in 2006. By his own admission, he was inspired in middle school by President Kennedy’s inaugural challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

After stints in the State Department, White House, our embassy in Moscow, and on Capitol Hill, he went to the NRC. During a ceremony honoring him, a fellow commissioner said: “[H]e can quote the most obscure regulations, and give exact details on how they were written.” McGaffigan dramatically improved NRC’s reputation for scientific excellence.

But being commissioner meant more than applying technical expertise. “He invests his entire character is this mission,” his chief of staff, Jeff Sharkey, said. When his wife died, McGaffigan was on Capitol Hill the next day. “It’s part of the duty thing,” he said. NRC Chairman Dale Klein said: “He always took the view of what is best for the American people, not what might bring attention to himself.”

McGaffigan was an honorable public servant.

The Behaviors of Honorable Service

Public servants should approach their role from two different vantage points. They must be program administrators, but they must also be responsible citizens. Doing both, they satisfy the twin demands of honor.

Program administrators focus on laws and regulations as guiding documents. Responsible citizens look to the founding values of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Program administrators focus on the requirements of the code of ethics; responsible citizens also focus on their oath of office. Satisfying the oath results from a constant questioning of how well the Preamble’s promise is being served.

Public servants as responsible citizens see themselves as trustees of founding values. They know they have only delegated authority, but they think beyond what they are permitted to do to what their oath requires them to do. This sounds idealistic, but idealism is an aid to acting honorably. James Madison said: “[J]ustice is the end of government.” Responsible citizenship sees justice as more than adherence to law and programmatic achievement. 





Guiding Documents

Declaration of Independence and

the U.S. Constitution

agency-specific law and regulation

Ethical Touchstone

Oath of Office

(moral obligation)

Code of Ethics

(regulatory and legal observance)

Orientation to Public Service

public service as a calling,

public servant as trustee

government employment as a job,

government employee as a delegate

Orientation to the U.S. Constitution

a work in progress, toward the achievement of the Preamble’s promise

a rulebook and a guide to permissible action


the success of the “American experiment” in republican government

program effectiveness/efficiency

Justice Achieved Through

benevolence, charity, love

adherence to law and

 program success

Key Metaphor

the public as a commons

government as a business

Time Orientation

past, present and future

the short-term present

Key Audience



Key Expectation of the Public

responsible and engaged citizenship

consumer of government goods and services

Approach to the Public

engage and learn

serve and guide

Engagement in Political Management

high – in service to the common good and regime values

low – in service to neutral competence

Focus for Education of the Public Servant

Constitutional thinking, regime values, ethical behavior

professional expertise and administrative excellence

Risk from Failure


loss of power, pay and perquisites

Critics of government are fond of demanding it adopt private sector business practices. The program administrator knows this can help. But the responsible citizen knows the limits of the business model – knows that values of efficiency and effectiveness are among other, competing and often more important, values in the public sphere. The “bottom line” for the public servant as a responsible citizen is the success of what the Founders called the “American experiment.”

The audience for the public servant as responsible citizen goes beyond customers. Customers need only consume government’s goods and services. Citizens need to be actively engaged. Passive citizenry is not the ideal to seek because it makes the civil servant’s job easier but the danger to avoid because it distances the public from its responsibility to share in governing.

All public servants must constantly learn, but responsible citizenship means gaining a deeper understanding of the Constitution and regime values. Failing in one’s job as a program administrator may lead to a loss of power and perks, but failing as a responsible citizen is shameful, the antithesis of the honor we must restore to public service.

Author: Terry Newell is president of his training firm, Leadership for a Responsibility Society and is the former dean of faculty of the Federal Executive Institute. His latest book is titled, To Serve with Honor: Doing the Right Thing in Government. Email: [email protected].

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3 Responses to Beyond Ethics: Honor and Public Service

  1. Lavita Thurston Reply

    February 15, 2023 at 4:30 am

    As our lecture discuss in one of our classes that honor comes before ethics and why does honor comes before ethics?
    An individual must have a moral compass that guides them in the choices they make on a daily bases. If there is no honor then how can there be ethics. The two works hand in hand.for example an employee of the public administration knows closing hours of business is 5pm you the client or customer needs a document to be processed and you arrive at one of our public service office at 4.30pm to hear am sorry our system is done but it’s not true that public administration department ready to go home. Where is the honor in that?
    Where is the work ethics in that?
    However there might be someone else that is willing to assist you upon realizing what is going on very honorable and ethical.

  2. Stephen Harding Reply

    January 16, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    Great Article–It certainly runs along the same theme I have been trying to get across for quite some time. It may be due to my own ineffective delivery, but I did a TED Talk along these lines at the 2015 annual conference of the Municipal Management Association of Southern California (MMASC). Granted I had a presentation that went way too long. My impression–I got a lot of blank stares from an audience of about 150. If I were to guess, the audience wanted an outline of applications. Somewhere along the line, the concept of public service and a working knowledge of the underpinnings of our democratic system are treated as theoretical notions. The desire to grasp applied skill sets concerning performance, big data, management, transparency, and leadership dominate the discussion. These concepts clearly need to be mastered, yet, without an inherent drive to do “Good and Fight Evil” our up and coming generation of public servants may be more concerned about technique and their careers rather than public service. It is about the trains running on time without knowing why and where.

  3. Dr. Alex Pattakos Reply

    December 17, 2016 at 9:30 am

    Excellent piece! The essence of personal and collective responsibility in all aspects of life must be grounded in “honor.” In Greek, there is a word, philotimo (roughly translated as “love of honor”), that captures this important concept. Importantly, philotimo is an integral part of the human quest for Meaning (See our award-winning, Greek inspired book, “The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work”). Moreover, it is the search for Meaning–what my mentor, the world-renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Viktor Frankl espoused is the primary, intrinsic motivation of human beings–that guides and drives honorable, not only ethical, behavior. Thank you for bringing attention to public/government service as an honorable calling! (See also my PAR article, “The Search for Meaning in Government Service,” Vol. 64, No. 1, January/February 2004, pp. 106-112).

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