The Sources of Ethical Decision Making for Individuals in the Public Sector

By Van Wart, Montgomery | Public Administration Review, November-December 1996 | Go to article overview

The Sources of Ethical Decision Making for Individuals in the Public Sector


Van Wart, Montgomery, Public Administration Review


What was the value in changing ASPA's Code of Ethics? Until recently, the Code of Ethics of the American Society for Public Administration symbolized the confusion in the field rather than its insights. The fine content of the former code was lost in numerous, unequal categories and discursive language. The new code has five principles or decision-making sources upon which public administrators should draw. This article demonstrates how the five sources are prominently discussed in the literature and arc useful for practitioners. Even more, the new code should provide an authoritative framework for the field. At an elementary level, the code prohibits egregiously unethical behavior. At a more sophisticated level, the code recognizes that the really tough administrative decisions occur when two or more of the legitimate decision-making sources compete. Thus the code is far more than a list of legalistic prohibitions. It is a powerful tool for decision analysis on the one hand and an aspirational call for excellence in the profession on the other.

The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) recently streamlined and substantially revised its Code of Ethics so that it would be more useful for practitioners and better reflect the literature on public sector ethics. The new code collapses 12 categories of unequal importance into 5 overarching principles. In this article I provide the intellectual and scholarly background used in the selection of those five organizing principles.

Historical Background of ASPA's Code of Ethics

ASPA adopted a loose set of ethical principles in 1981. In 1984, ASPA approved a formal Code of Ethics which was expanded the next year to include implementation guidelines. When published in small type, the Code and Implementation Guidelines were two full pages.

In 1993, ASPA's leadership encouraged the Professional Ethics Committee to revise the Code of Ethics. Although no specific charge was given, the following complaints were noted by the committee:

1. The highlighted principles did not distinguish between overarching principles and subordinate concepts and were too numerous to remember easily.

2. Despite good content, the code rambled and had inconsistent styles.

3. Because of the weak organization, it was difficult to find a specific point without reading the document from the beginning.

The Professional Ethics Committee drew heavily on the previous 1985 code in its revision but decided to (1) use broader categories that would be recognizable to the scholarly community and memorable for the practitioner community; (2) consolidate the code into a dense, one-page document; and (3) number and display principles and points for ease of use. A subcommittee redrafted the code in the spring of 1994, then the full committee edited it, and a preliminary draft was shared with the National Council. In the fall, a draft was published in PA Times with a request for comments. After revising it based on the comments received, the revised Code of Ethics was unanimously adopted at the 1994 December meeting.

Problems in Identifying Sources of Decision Making

Which Are the Key Sources or Roles?

One of the most commonly agreed-upon notions in the field is that administrators have numerous roles, or value sets, which are sources for the decisions they make. For example, an administrator may concentrate quite appropriately on legal issues at one point, organizational issues at another, and personal interests at still another. Although there is widespread agreement that these roles and their concomitant value sets exist, that agreement quickly dissipates when one tries to identify and name which roles or value sets are crucial for public administrators.

Researchers have divided up an administrator's major roles in many ways. Some researchers are famous for specializing in a single area, even though their views are broad, such as Rohr's (1989) concentration on regime values (law and legal tradition) and Frederickson's (1990) attention to social equity (public interest), but many researchers have consciously divided the roles to cover all the major decision-making bases. …

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