Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

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].

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (4 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

3 Responses to Beyond Ethics: Honor and Public Service

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *