Violating the Public Trust: The Ethical and Moral Obligations of Government Officials

Article excerpt

A persistent issue in public personnel is a concern with violations of the public trust by public servants and elected officials. This article (1) examines the public trust concept, (2) presents a philosophers thoughts on why public officials misbehave, (3) reviews the ethical and moral violations found in public service and (4) shows attempts to correct the problems. The author concludes the article by calling on the individual employee to protest against policies and directives he or she considers detrimental to the public good, even if it means resigning from public service.

Editor's Note: The Winter 1999, Volume 28 No. 4 issue of Public Personnel Management will feature a special symposium on ethics in the public sector. The following article is a preview to that symposium. If you would like to contribute an article to the symposium, please send an outline of your proposed article to Karen Smith, editor, Public Personnel Management, 1617 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, fax: 703-684-0948, e-mail: ksmith@ipma-hr.org.

A casual observer of high level government officials could easily come away with the perception that such individuals have a lot of authority and autonomy. To be sure, the authority component exists for these officials but not the autonomy. Regrettably, some government officials not only perceive themselves as having significant autonomy but act it out, sometimes on a grand scale. Herein lies the problem with a great many "discretionary" decisions of such officials.

This article examines the moral, ethical and sometimes illegal decision making of public officials that can be construed in violation of the public trust. Realizing the potential areas available for exploration, this author reviews the nature of the ethics problem in government, decisions of government officials considered to be in violation of the public trust, and attempts at correcting the problem.

The Public Trust

Just what do we mean by the expression, "The Public Trust?" A review of the writings of Max Weber, a nineteenth-century writer on bureaucracy, will serve as a starting point. Weber's discussion of "ideal type" bureaucracy posits the fact that officials in public organizations do not have ownership of their positions.[1] Ownership belongs to the people, i.e., the taxpaying public. Elected officials appoint administrators who select other individuals and entrust them with public resources to pursue goals and objectives that serve the public good. These elected officials, their appointees, and others selected to work in bureaucracy are public servants.

As long as the behaviors of these groups are consistent with official rules, regulations, and the pursuit of objectives that serve the interest of the public, one can say that the trust placed in the hands of these officials is being satisfied.

On occasion, however, the discretionary authority the public places in the hands of elected officials and bureaucrats is abused. Public resources are sometimes utilized to serve the personal interest of officials. Too often we have seen this abuse at virtually every level of government. Many in the field of public administration have questioned how we have arrived at a point where there is so much unethical, immoral, and illegal activity in government.

Nature of the Problem

Author Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor and philosopher, suggests that "moral relativism" is the cause of the ethics problem in today's society.[2] Bloom argues that the university and society, in their attempt to be open-minded in examining all cultures and all ideas, have come away with the notion that, in order to be open, all things must be viewed in a relative manner. Moral relativism then becomes a virtue in itself and therefore "what Immanuel Kant called the Good, the True, the Beautiful is -relative."[3] Bloom asserts that this relativistic notion is destroying the ideas of moral truth, wisdom and greatness. …