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Public Administration Ethical Challenges

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

By Anna Marie Schuh
August 23, 2021

The first thing a new public administration student learns is the difference between the private and public sectors. There are various ways to describe it, e.g., profit versus provision of public services, individual economic control versus government economic control or individual ownership versus government ownership. The definition I prefer is one I learned from an instructor: The public sector does what the private sector cannot or will not do. For example, the private sector cannot provide foreign trade policy consistent throughout all industries and throughout the country; however, the United States government can. Another example includes the private sector refusing to manufacture drugs for rare diseases because the drugs are unprofitable; in these cases, the government subsidizes companies to produce these necessary drugs. Underlying the above examples is a difference in ethical environment: private sector ethics revolve around how the action advantages the individual while public sector ethics relate to how the action advantages the public interest. This difference causes public administration challenges when individuals use a private sector perspective in government decisionmaking.

Private sector actors base ethical decisions on law and also when required on professional codes of conduct, e.g., bar association or certified public accounting rules. In addition to the above, public sector employees consider the public interest in decisionmaking, often through using the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) ethics code. That code includes the following tenets: advance the public interest, uphold the Constitution and the law, promote democratic participation, strengthen social equity, fully inform and advise, demonstrate personal integrity, promote ethical organizations and advance professional excellence. Unfortunately, several of these tenets are currently experiencing challenges. A few examples follow.

Recent state limitations on public health officials by state legislatures is a challenge related to the tenet of promoting the public interest. In a May 2021 report, the National Association of County and City Health Officials identified a list of recent state laws limiting what public health officials can do. State legislators created these laws in response to the legislators’ perception of overreach during the pandemic by public health officials and governors. These laws include prohibiting mask requirements, blocking closure of businesses, banning quarantine, blocking vaccination requirements, setting arbitrary time limits on emergency orders and providing unilateral legislative authority to block public health requirements. As a result, many public health officials are leaving their posts. These laws violate the ASPA tenet of advancing the public interest by challenging the science-based expertise-based decisions of public health officials.

The promotion of ASPA’s democratic participation tenet is currently under challenge. All but three states currently have legislation affecting voting procedures and voter access. The Brennan Center for Justice in a recent report noted that these initiatives have resulted from the historic 2020 voter turnout and baseless allegations of voter fraud. 165 bills restricting voter access have been introduced in 33 states. These bills seek to impede democratic participation by limiting mail voting, enacting stricter identification constraints, reducing voter registration opportunities and allowing aggressive voter roll purges.

Promoting ethical organizations is another ASPA tenet under challenge. In federal government departments, inspector generals investigate ethical concerns. During a six week period in 2020, five inspector generals were fired for executing legitimate actions. Specifically, the president indicated that he fired the Intelligence Community inspector general because that individual never informed the president that he was forwarding a whistleblower complaint to Congress. Shortly after being appointed to the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee of the independent Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, the acting Department of Defense inspector general was returned to his position of principal deputy inspector general. The oversight committee had been mandated in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the president had issued a signing statement challenging the committee. The president announced the replacement of the Department of Health and Human Services acting inspector general less than a month after that individual issued a report that the nation’s hospitals had severe personal protective equipment and testing supply shortages during the pandemic. The president removed the Department of State inspector general at the request of the secretary of state, who was under investigation for using government employees to perform personal errands and evading Congressional limitations on arms sales. Finally, the Department of Transportation acting inspector general was removed when he was investigating the secretary of transportation for giving preferential treatment to the state of Kentucky, where her senator husband was running for re-election. All these inspector generals were performing actions to ensure the integrity of the government when they were removed from their positions.

The ASPA code of ethics guides public administrators as they work towards providing government free from corruption. As President Theodore Roosevelt noted, “No man who is corrupt, no man who condones corruption in others, can possibly do his duty by the community.” Still, avoiding corruption and creating a responsive and ethical government can be especially challenging in current times, as the previous examples highlight. However, as George S. Patton advocated, “Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory.”


Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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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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