Public Service Ethics: A Global Dialogue

Article excerpt

Do divergent values embedded in distinctive cultures satisfactorily explain current directions in public service ethics around the world? The authors draw upon expert observation by government and corporate officials who administer ethics programs, leaders known for their moral courage, survey research, and the scholarly literature to identify these directions and begin addressing the question. The central argument is that observable practice increasingly invalidates an approach that relies exclusively upon cultural particularities. Identified commonalties susceptible to objective research include shared values and norms such as impartiality and effectiveness in public service, structural elements in part fostered by shared goals and multinational anti-corruption initiatives, and the self-conscious injection of normative components into ethics programs. Emerging from a cross-cultural empirical perspective that allows for mutualities as well as differences, the authors' rich research agenda included investigation of the alleged links between public attitudes and ethics programs and between codes and actual administrative behavior, and development of appropriate measures of ethics programs' effectiveness. They concluded that professional public administration must remain intellectually open to global dialogue on shared values, norms, and structures.

More than 100 participants from 53 countries exchanged expertise and insights at the International Conference on Ethics in Government at the invitation of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and the U.S. Information Agency in November 1994 in Washington, DC. Also represented were the sponsoring organizations, including Connecticut College (New London), the Institute of Public Administration (New York City), Martin Marietta, NYNEX, Pitney Bowes, and United Technologies Corporation. Neither the first nor last international conference on governmental ethics,(1) this meeting was distinguished by (1) the number of represented countries and cultures, (2) the predominance of government officials responsible for administering ethics programs in their respective countries (augmented by corporate ethics officers and a few academics), and (3) its substantive focus on the proposition that democracy and a market economy both depend upon the public's (broadly defined as citizen, consumer, client, and colleague) confidence in the integrity of government institutions and public servants.

Conferees were expected to represent their governments in discussions on effective ways to create and administer workable ethics laws and systems. In our estimation,(2) the dialogue centered on the political values of freedom and justice and the administrative values of efficiency, effectiveness, and responsiveness. We now know that numerous countries around the world operate an active administrative ethics program; structural similarities also became evident, as did the importance of supporting mechanisms such as international organizations.

Much of the literature on comparative governmental ethics stresses variations in governmental ethics and associates them with divergent values embedded in the respective cultures (e.g., Heidenheimer, 1970; Huddleston, 1981). Huddleston argues that the three patterns of administrative ethics he identifies "reflect the institutionalization of fundamental political cleavages" (p. 74). He states that, "In sum, not only can we observe wide differences in patterns of administrative ethics between [sic] nations, but even within single systems it is found that ethical patterns may shift over time" (p. 73). Similarly, a recent study of legislative ethics--the rules and laws governing the financial interests of members of national legislatures in 25 democratic countries--concludes that "restrictions on a legislator's conduct and outside activities with respect to private financial interests are a product of numerous political, cultural, and economic factors. …