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Ethics in Public Service

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

By Tosha Wilson-Davis
February 4, 2019

Defining Ethics

What comes to mind when one hears the word ethics? Maybe the words integrity, honor, morals, etc. According to Psychologytoday.com, “Ethics consist of the moral code, or philosophy, that guides a person’s choices and behaviors throughout their life.” Think about law enforcement officers, lawyers, doctors and government officials whose specific mission is to serve the public. Ethical behavior is the utmost priority to foster integrity and trust, not just for those serving, but also for the sake of the profession.

If a law enforcement officer is engaging in illegal activities or domestic violence, is he or she upholding the oath of office in an ethical manner? Of course not! Or for instance, if a government official decides to allocate money to a contractor who is kin, this is a breach of ethics if others are qualified. Such actions are simply unethical.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

We have all heard the slogan, “Do the right thing even when no one is looking.” This is particularly important for those holding public service positions. However, with current strife between political parties, including the recent government shutdown, many may be questioning our administration’s state of ethics. In an article from the University of Texas, Robert Prentice references Walter M. Shaub Jr., the former director of the independent Office of Government Ethics, who resigned. Shaub Jr. made the following statement, “In working with the current administration, it has become clear that we need to strengthen the ethics program.”

In other words, it may be time for public administrators and our country to return to the phrase we’ve all heard, “Follow the yellow brick road, from the famous movie, “The Wizard of OZ.” This simply correlates to the idea of a person taking a course of action that will likely lead to good things. In recent months, the political division and kerfuffle we have experienced may have many asking whether our country has deviated from an ethical path.

Ethics has No Face

Unlike an application asking for your ethnicity, race, education or gender, ethics does not rely on any of these extralegal factors. It simply relies on one’s ability to do the right thing at all times, no matter his or her DNA. Public administrators, including those who are in leadership positions, must set the example for subordinates. Doing so generates a sense of veracity and integrity that ultimately trickles down and leads to organizational success.

Robert Prentice makes a bold statement on how ethics seems to be almost non-existent within the current administration in his article titled, “Ethics Is Not a Word Under Trump Administration. It Should Be.” He states, “Trump and his family do not walk the walk. Nor does his administration even talk the talk.” According to Shaub, “The consistent approach I’m running into in dealing with this [White House] counsel’s office is: ‘If it’s not illegal, we’re going to do it. And if there’s an argument that it’s probably not illegal, we’re going to do it.’”

Bringing Back Ethics in Public ServiceHow So?

There have been many references to our democracy being broken. Considering such an adjective being used to describe our current political landscape, can we be hopeful that ethics will be restored within public service organizations, particularly in government? It simply depends on who answers this question.

Unethical practices, even in voting, were raised with the previous midterm elections in November. In November 2018 Nancy Pelosi and House leaders emphasized their priorities, which included reviewing ethics laws. A New York Times article by Nicolas Fandos noted that Democratic leaders would use their first month in the House majority to advance comprehensive changes to future campaign and ethics laws. This would require the disclosure of shadowy political donors, outlawing the gerrymandering of congressional districts and restoring key enforcement provisions to the Voting Rights Act.

Ethics in public service is non-negotiable. This should be instilled from the top to the bottom in public organizations. Our Commander-in-Chief holds our country in his hands, literally. As such, ethical behavior is absolutely necessary to create integrity and trust, and also to ensure the security of our nation. The bottom line is that restoring the public’s trust and ethics within public service is going to take some extensive collaboration, strategic planning and initiative on both sides of the aisle.

Tosha Wilson-Davis, MPA, MSCJ
Justice Studies Department Chair/Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice
Georgia Military College-Online Campus
[email protected]

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