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Ethics and Public Administration: The Case of Middle Township

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Richard Jacobs

Jacobs juneWhen the American Society of Public Administrators (ASPA) promulgated its revised Code of Ethics in March 2013, officials of Middle Township New Jersey (MT) might have yawned. After all, as ShoreNewsToday.com reported, Ocean City abolished its ethics board in 2012, leaving MT as one of only 36 New Jersey municipalities having ethics boards. For several months, MT officials had been considering a plan to eliminate MT’s Ethics Board.

Those lobbying to eliminate the board—including its former chair—believe it unnecessary. The time and expense as well as the number of conflicts of interest—requiring members to recuse themselves when allegations of ethical lapses arise—made the board inefficient and ineffective. Furthermore, the state’s Local Finance Board (LFB) already possesses jurisdiction to enforce ethical conduct on the part of MT officials and employees.

So, why did MT officials establish an ethics board in the first place?

In February 1999, the MT Township Committee acted to establish what it called a “Municipal Ethics Board” charging it with, among other matters, promulgating a “Code of Ethics,” determining the facts and rendering decisions concerning allegations of unethical conduct and imposing any penalties which it believes appropriate within the limitations of the act establishing the board. In particular, the act establishing the board defined unethical conduct as consisting of those behaviors that “conflict with the Municipal Code of Ethics or any financial disclosure requirements.”

The fact is that MT didn’t establish a “board of ethics.” More properly speaking, MT established a board of professional conduct, calling it an “Ethics Board.” In addition, what MT calls a “code of ethics” is, more properly speaking, a “code of conduct.”

What’s the difference? What does this mean for public administrators?

Oftentimes, case law identifies proscribed conduct and it’s that body of law which municipal townships eventually aggregate into a “code of conduct” and revise as case law changes. While its specificity enables professionals to know precisely what they should not do, a code of conduct also provides legal protection should other persons or groups challenge professionals about their decisions and/or conduct. That is precisely what MT’s “code of ethics” provides.

In turn, a board of professional conduct utilizes a code of conduct to make determinations about whether the professionals who are covered by its provisions have engaged in proscribed conduct and, if they have, to recommend appropriate sanctions. In the case of MT that would mean behaviors “conflict[ing] with the Municipal Code of Ethics or any financial disclosure requirements.” The lesson for public administrators? Always adhere to the “letter of the law.”

In contrast, a “code of ethics” identifies the principles that professionals ought to consider as they deliberate about resolving dilemmas arising in their professional practice. These principles—representing the profession’s collective wisdom that’s been learned through the years and decades as well as from a variety of sources—reflect the profession’s highest virtues. Violating a code of ethics denotes disregard for a profession’s principles. The lesson for public administrators? Always implement the “spirit of the principle.”

What a code of conduct requires—conforming to externally imposed standards—differs from what a code of ethics requires—complying with internally accepted principles. The former demands professionals to adhere strictly to as well as to demonstrate that their decisions and conduct align squarely with the letter of the law. The latter presupposes that professionals mindfully reflect upon substantive principles as well as exemplify the spirit of those principles in their decisions and conduct.

In the ideal world, the decisions and conduct of public administrators will evidence a careful balance of the “letter of the law” and the “spirit of the principles.” However, the nature of dilemmas—two mutually exclusive good options—pits one against the other. Confronting these difficult choices, professionals must remember that the spirit—their profession’s substantive principles—precedes the letter—the law. The lesson for public administrators? To do anything less represents a failure to exhibit what Chad Newswander called “administrative statesmanship” in his 2012 Public Administration Review article “Moral Leadership and Administrative Statesmanship: Safeguards of Democracy in a Constitutional Republic.”

The current discussion among MT officials about disbanding its ethics board misses the mark, especially since the state of New Jersey’s LFB already possesses jurisdiction over those functional, legal matters that identify the work of the MT board of ethics. Moreover, the LFB’s charge to enforce ethical conduct on the part of New Jersey’s township officials and employees mischaracterizes both the LFB’s charge and role. While LFBs can bring forward findings of illegal conduct, it’s really up to professional associations to promulgate ethical principles and to enforce ethical conduct on the part of their members.

Why? Ethics is primarily a matter of personal character—one’s freely-willed compliance with one’s internal values—and not conformity—one’s implementation of externally imposed standards. Membership in a professional association presupposes that each member accepts its ethical principles.

ASPA’s revised code of ethics marks an important advance. It offers public administrators eight principles to guide their decision-making process. It also offers thirty-seven practices to assist public administrators to contextualize those principles when they confront dilemmas. ASPA’s hope is that this revised code will “increase awareness and commitment to ethical principles and standards among all those who work in public service in all sectors.”

More importantly, March 15, 2013, ASPA’s National Council approved a proposal to create an Ethics and Standards Implementation Committee (ESIC). The proposal states that ESIC will “investigate allegations of misconduct and recommend to the Council actions (including but not limited to termination of membership) that should be taken when a member violates the Code of Ethics.”

If ASPA members vote to establish the ESIC in November 2014, ASPA will be better equipped to ensure that its code of ethics not only will inform its members’ personal and professional conduct but will also guide them to fulfill their job requirements as they utilize the code and its practices to inform their decision-making process. In this way, ASPA will be transforming from a society of professionals into a professional association, one whose members desire to be characterized by the code’s principles and expect the association to hold them accountable for upholding those principles and practices in their personal and professional conduct as well in their decisions.

For public administrators and the profession of public administration as well that transformation is nothing to yawn at.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, where he teaches organization theory and leadership ethics in the MPA program. Jacobs can be emailed at: [email protected].

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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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