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The Importance of 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 Deborah T. Johnson
June 2, 2019

The average citizen harbors a strong mistrust towards government officials and employees. Because of this mistrust, there are ethics and values in place to provide much needed accountability between the general public and the local, state and federal administration. This solidifies the well-known fact that public administrators are held at a much higher standard with regard to ethics than your everyday citizen. Why is ethics in public service important? Why is it necessary? Why is it an invaluable tool? Ethics in public service is a crucial part of the day-to-day activities that public administrators enact. There is absolutely no room for anything other than operating with full transparency.

Ethics embodies honesty, accountability, integrity, empathy and just knowing the difference between what is right and what is wrong. This includes operating strictly as a policy-driven individual. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines ethics as the discipline dealing with what is good and what is bad. Many corporations, organizations and especially government entities create strong mission statements to establish strict company values and ethics. These values and ethics set the tone, framework and character for the organizations and its employees. Granted, much of the ethical rhetoric has fallen by the way side, with many public officials being plastered with controversy in the media. The public demands answers and justice from all public servants who are involved with such controversy.  

Some may get ethics and morals misconstrued. Although similar, there is a difference between these two entities. Morals, generally describe one’s personal beliefs and values as to what is right and wrong, whereas ethics refers to a wide range of moral principles solely based on a gray area of questionable activity. So, what is moral compass, and how does it fit into public service? A moral compasses is a too; to help navigate personal issues which affect any individual. These personal issues can include anything regarding finances; failure to pay income taxes, questionable purchases and money laundering. Moral compasses also deal with issues of health; drug use, alcohol abuse, obesity and unhealthy lifestyles. Several acts of sexual misconduct allegations have been attached to the political arena, such as cases involving Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, John Conyers, Roy Moore and  Donald Trump, just to name a few of the most notable.

There is much to consider when public servants are in uncompromising situations involving embezzling, misappropriation of funds, theft of property and so forth. Thomas Jefferson once famously noted, “When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself public property.” This statement could not be truer today, and surely ethically correct. As a public servant, you are operating public property. You should be working in a transparent manner, with morals, integrity, honesty and putting the public’s trust above all things. This is what Jefferson meant when he proclaimed, “The basic obligation of public service.” Once lost, is it possible to gain the public’s trust back? I truly question that.

In graduate school, I read The Responsible Administrator: An Approach to Ethics for the Administrative Role. This book introduced me to an incredibly famed author in the field of public administration, Terry Cooper, who instituted a method of formulating positive alternatives of ethical reasoning. Cooper, who was a fanatic of ethics in the public sector, coined ideas used widely today. Cooper’s Decision-Making Model is a positive approach to working through the initial problem to applicable options and results. When watching the news, I can see where this method would be beneficial when many government officials’ unethical behavior is called into question. Cooper’s step-by-step model includes:

  1. Describing the task.
  2. Defining the ethical issue/problem.
  3. Identifying alternative courses of action.
  4. Considering possible consequences.
  5. Finding a fit.

  • Describing the task is where an issue is presented, but not necessarily in a clear and concise manner.
  • Defining the Ethical Issue is where the administrator will examine and analyze the set of values being presented.
  • Identifying alternative courses of action entails an informed administrator identifying the exact cause of action.
  • Considering possible consequences is where an administrator will review all aspects of the results.
  • Finding a fit refers to taking into account moral rules, rehearsal of defenses, ethical principles, and anticipatory self-appraisal. This is where a strong solution is made.

Cooper’s model creates a concrete method to get results. I can see where many attorneys and publicists are put in positions to clean up the dirty work in an effort to get a handle on problems within the public sector.

Ethics in public service is not just an idea, but  also an imperative and mandatory practice. Citizens depend on public servants to be professional, honest—and most importantly—ethical. Imagine being a citizen concerned about issues that plague your community, your area schools or the funding that affects your neighborhood. You would want your public servant or administrator to be someone you can always trust.

Deborah T. Johnson, MPA
Administrative Professional
Executive Master in Public Administration/Public Policy, Texas Southern University, Houston, Texas
Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas
[email protected]



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