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The Virtue of Integrity: Inspiring Confidence And Trust

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

By Richard M. Jacobs
December 7, 2019

Integrity is both a personal and public virtue that’s expressed along a continuum Rohr identified as ranging from a low road approach—compliance—to a high road approach—commitment.

As a, “Both-and,” proposition, the low road provides guardrails to remain on track while the high road encourages venturing further by cementing integrity more completely into one’s character. Although compliance is important, it is not likely to inspire confidence and trust in subordinates.

To promote competence, public administrators might consider what private sector CEO’s have learned: Emphasize commitment.

Inspiring confidence and trust

To emphasize commitment, ensure integrity in the organization’s operations and mitigate the risk of ethical lapses, public administrators can implement four strategies.

Strategy 1: Adhere to the highest standards of conduct.

Subordinates look to administrators for cues concerning what they are to aspire to as well as how they should conduct themselves.

To model integrity and strengthen commitment, public administrators must conduct themselves according to the profession’s highest standards, evidencing them publicly in their conduct. As Argyris and Schön noted decades ago, “Model I,” behavior—espousing integrity in theory and not in action—doesn’t inspire confidence and trust. In contrast, “Model II,” behavior—espousing integrity and demonstrating it in action—does.

Remember: Subordinates are adept at identifying duplicity. Strengthening their commitment begins at the top.

Strategy 2: Empower subordinates to demonstrate integrity.

Make integrity the focal point for the organization’s operations. However, if subordinates are to exhibit this virtue in their work, interactions and exchange of ideas, they must know what integrity means and requires.

This strategy requires public administrators to:

  • Assist subordinates to identify and codify what integrity means in different situations.
  • When making decisions, uphold integrity by continuously referring to those codified meanings.
  • Challenge subordinates to hold themselves and each other accountable as a team for conducting themselves with integrity.
  • Include those codified meanings as one element of the annual evaluation process by having subordinates offer examples of how they’ve taken the high road by conducting themselves with integrity.

Remember: Empowering subordinates to demonstrate integrity strengthens it.

Strategy 3: Prevent, detect and deter any lack of integrity.

For integrity to characterize the organization’s culture, as in, “How we do things around here,” administrators must not waver in promoting integrity as the cornerstone of organizational operations.

Continuous ethics and compliance training assists in this regard, especially with online digital technologies offering public administrators a venue to provide customized, compelling, and intensive ethics training through individual and group learning modules. These can take a variety of forms:

  • An annual or biannual intensive, two-hour course focusing on a case study emphasizing a particular aspect of integrity.
  • Monthly, issue-driven, five- to ten- minute, “Integrity Updates.”
  • Other formal and informal methods that best suit the organization.

Public administrators can develop these modules themselves or utilize and adapt other resources, for example, videos produced by ASPA’s Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. To avoid overwhelming subordinates, modules can be organized to introduce and then reinforce integrity as the cornerstone of organizational operations. Then too, making these modules accessible, “On demand,” has the benefit of not requiring additional meetings.

Remember: Continuously reaffirm the personal and public commitment to integrity espoused in the training modules by including them in annual evaluations.

Strategy 4: Emphasize deliberation.

Ethical lapses draw attention a lack of integrity, tempting public administrators to implement new rules to keep similar lapses from occurring again.

While subordinates may comply with these new controls, this low-road approach doesn’t develop a more ethical culture. It may also drive unethical conduct deeper underground as subordinates learn to circumvent the new controls. Instead, encouraging subordinates to deliberate upon their intentions, actions and the associated outcomes will assist subordinates to recall the codified meanings of integrity, apply them to understand better how and why those lapses occurred and to cement integrity more completely into their character.

Remember: Ethical lapses provide opportunities to reassert integrity as a personal and public virtue as well as its crucial importance as the cornerstone for the organization’s operations.

Integrity is crucial

Integrity is a crucial virtue, as the ASPA Code of Ethics notes, if public administrators are to, “Inspire public confidence and trust in public service.”

It is imperative for public administrators to model integrity by exemplifying in their conduct what’s expected of others across all layers and levels of the organization without consideration for titles or differences in responsibilities. Forging this culture in public-sector organizations is what inspires confidence and trust in public service.

More importantly, it elevates public administration from an important civic profession to a noble vocation.


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 theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted 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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