Teaching Ethics and Values in Public Administration: Are We Making a Difference?

By Menzel, Donald C. | Public Administration Review, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

Teaching Ethics and Values in Public Administration: Are We Making a Difference?


Menzel, Donald C., Public Administration Review


Moral education, Derek Bok (1990) reminds us, once occupied a central place in the intellectual life of students and professors. Strengthening or building the character of students was part and parcel of academe, at least until World War II. College presidents and professors believed that character building contributed to "an educated class committed to a principled life in the service of society" (Bok, 1990, 66). This view and practice, Bok contends, has been largely abandoned, having lost ground to logical positivists, the growth of big science, and the spectacular advances of technology. The secularization of society also took its toll on moral education in the halls of academe.

In public administration, questions of morality and ethics became captives of the Wilsonian legacy of neutral competency, which found expression in the dominant operating philosophy of public managers to get the job done. Getting the job done right meant for all practical purposes doing what was right or ethical. Professionals in the "pro-state" tirelessly pursued the holy trilogy of efficiency, economy, and effectiveness (Stillman, 1991). In combination with a heavy dose of clientelism and paternalism, questions of morality and ethics were largely relegated to the sidelines in the teaching and practice of public administration, even though new public administration theorists made a determined effort to inject values into the life of the administrative state.

Then came Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, and the Wall Street-HUD-Capitol Hill scandals of the 1980s. The near impeachment and removal of a sitting president stirred the American soul and prompted renewed public interest in governmental ethics. Thus, in 1978 President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Ethics in Government Act, committing federal employees to standards of behavior believed to be in the best interests of the American public. Six years later, in 1984, the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) adopted an ethics code designed to raise the ethical standards and practices of its members. And in the late 1980s, the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) incorporated language into its curriculum standards that called for public administration programs to "enhance the student's values, knowledge, and skills to act ethically and effectively."

These laudable efforts -- federal legislation, ASPA's code of ethics, and NASPAA's new language -- were clear signals to the public and academe that ethical behavior is needed and expected of government officials. Moreover, the message sent to public administration graduate programs was unequivocal -- ethics education cannot and should not be relegated to the curriculum sidelines.

Indeed, the evidence points to the fact that MPA programs have moved steadily over the past 25 years toward the incorporation of ethics instruction and courses in their curriculums. A 1995 survey of NASPAA-member schools found that about a dozen schools added ethics courses in the 1970s, with another ten schools added to the list in the early and mid-1980s (Menzel, forthcoming). The adoption curve increased sharply in the late 1980s and 1990s following NASPAA's change in the language of its accreditation standards. By the mid-1990s, 78 NASPAA-member, MPA-degree-granting schools offered an ethics course. Among these 78 schools, one of every four requires matriculating students to complete an ethics course (Menzel, forthcoming).

The purpose of this article is to extend previous research in order to address what is probably the most important but least investigated question facing faculty and public administration programs that provide ethics instruction: Does ethics education make a difference? That is, does formal ethics instruction in graduate public affairs/administration (PA/A) schools help public service professionals resolve ethical dilemmas? Stated differently, does ethics pedagogy matter?

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