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Ethics, Leadership and Improving the Delivery of Public Services

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

By Richard Jacobs
August 31, 2020

As public-private partnerships (PPP) have become more common, the delivery of public services (DPS) has come under increased scrutiny.

The reason? Reported declines in their delivery.

With the ASPA Code of Ethics requiring members, “To advance the public interest,” recent research indicates that one variable—ethical administrators—correlates positively with improved DPS.

Ethical Administrators and DPS

When public administrators assess the reported declines through the lens of performance management, they oftentimes narrow their focus upon making improvements by increasing efficiency.

Unfortunately, this approach can beget a toxic climate; one measured in a weakened commitment to the organization’s purpose which, in turn, increases absenteeism, decreases teamwork and diminishes public service orientation. Limited resources are wasted, productivity decreases and there’s no organizational learning. Over time, these effects become evident in the lag variable of an organizational culture promoting diminished DPS.

To reverse this outcome, ethical administrators align the organization’s purpose with stakeholders’ interests to forge an ethical culture. Then, to nourish and strengthen it, ethical administrators integrate three systems—an ethics management system, a performance management system and an organization commitment system—that generates a synergy that can be measured in terms of improved DPS.

The Ethics Management System

An effective ethics management system enhances accountability, increases integrity and unifies stakeholder interests by implementing a variety of formal and informal tools.

The formal tools include control mechanisms to resolve ethical dilemmas, consisting of a code of ethics, mandatory ethics training, regular ethics audits, a whistleblower protection policy and an ethics hotline. The informal tools include role modeling (caring and independence) and positive reinforcement (through policies and procedures). These contribute to a positive climate that buttresses an ethical culture.

The Performance Management System

An effective ethics management system drives an organization’s performance management system to cultivate ethical conduct. Its accountability mechanisms—consisting of measurable and well-defined goals and assessment mechanisms—aims to increase efficiency as well as to strengthen quality through teamwork that improves performance.

An effective performance assessment examines:

  • Managerial and internal organizational factors (including performance management, organizational culture; leadership, structure, bureaucracy, human resource management practices; goal ambiguity; ethics management);
  • Individual factors (job satisfaction; attachment to the organization; public service motivation; altruism; individual performance; unethical conduct); and,
  • External factors (networks; political support; public support; mass media).

This examination yields data to assess three process-based factors—growth, adaptiveness and responsiveness—as well as four results-based factors—productivity, effectiveness, efficiency and service delivery.

When the organization’s ethics management system supports its performance assessment system, ethical administrators identify the degree to which performance correlates with each individual’s contribution to the achievement of the organization’s purpose and goals. Feedback is then directed at improving the organization’s process by decreasing self-interest, strengthening weakening intrinsic motivation and generating a positive climate where individuals and groups learn how to solve problems.

The Organization Commitment System

With these two systems forging a climate of care and an ethical culture rooted in the organization’s purpose, organization commitment increases as perceptions of fairness reduce cognitive dissonance, promote trust and diminish role stress, all of which coalesce in increased commitment. In addition, the number of ethical lapses decrease while the ability of individuals and groups to resolve them expands.

Ethical administrators assess organization commitment along three dimensions:

  • The affective dimension—the degree of acceptance of the organization’s goals;
  • The normative dimension—the eagerness to devote substantial effort to the organization; and,
  • The continuance dimension—the willingness to remain in the organization.

This assessment yields data identifying the degree to which people are committed to the organization, especially its purpose and goals.

The Synergy of the Systems

Improving DPS requires ethical administrators to encourage commitment by focusing upon organizational values and strengthening them through organizational learning.

To change their organization’s values and subordinates’ attitudes towards the delivery of these services, ethical administrators focus their attention upon the process of organizational learning to empower individuals and groups so they will:

  • Demonstrate integrity by nurture and strengthen ethical culture through role modeling and personal/professional growth;
  • Enhance critical thinking and develop innovative approaches to problem solving; and,
  • Promote trust by building teams, lowering the risk to whistleblowers and inspiring loyalty and commitment to the organization.

As this research suggests, these findings can assist public administrators to function as ethical administrators by accentuating vision, inspiring and influencing behavior, and stimulating intellectual curiosity that will increase DPS.

Better yet, these findings can assist ethical administrators to advance the public interest.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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