Managing Ethics in the Palmetto State: A Case Study of the South Carolina State Ethics Commission

By Smith, Robert W. | Global Virtue Ethics Review, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Managing Ethics in the Palmetto State: A Case Study of the South Carolina State Ethics Commission


Smith, Robert W., Global Virtue Ethics Review


Abstract

State ethics commissions are agencies of government that are responsible for the administration of ethics programs, enforcement of ethics provisions and the cultivation of an ethical climate in state government. Unfortunately there are few empirical studies that examine the role and operation of these "ethics gatekeepers" of state government. Specifically, very little is known about how these entities "manage" ethics.

There are 36 states with ethics commissions, boards or offices yet there are few studies that examine the management of these organizations. By using the South Carolina State Ethics Commission as a frame of reference the research questions to be addressed in this case study include: What are ethics commissions? What do they do? Are they managed differently from other state agencies? To what extent does management of ethics pose unique challenges for ethics commissions and state governments overall?

The research methodology in this paper employs the case study approach (Yin, 1984). Interviews with ethics administrators from the South Carolina State Ethics Commission and related stakeholders (e.g., Common Cause) were conducted during the spring and summer of 2000. These interviews are utilized to build a descriptive account of the role, mission and operation of the South Carolina State Ethics Commission. Other selected literature on ethics commissions will be consulted to broaden the context of the South Carolina experience. Analyzing the experience of one ethics commission via the case study approach provides the opportunity to describe and understand real life operational issues faced by a state ethics commission. This case study will serve as the basis for extending an examination of the management of ethics commissions to other states in the Southeast.

The fact that the South Carolina State Ethics Commission is a small state agency, poses unique management problems for an agency charged with the far-reaching mandate of enforcing and enhancing ethics in State government. Budgetary and personnel shortfalls and scope of jurisdiction issues impose significant obstacles on the ability of the commission to do its job. To the extent these issues are similar for ethics commissions in other states, there may be some important observations to make about the impact of management on their ability to fulfill their mandates.

Despite the existence of ethics commissions and extensive ethics laws, governments continue to confront a seemingly endless array of ethics transgressions committed by a variety of state officials. By understanding the operations and management of one ethics agency, a clearer picture may emerge about what works and what doesn't in the quest for ensuring and cultivating an ethical environment in state government in the 21st Century.

Introduction

This paper examines the experience of the South Carolina State Ethics Commission with a specific focus on management issues facing ethics commissions in state government. Typically, ethics commissions are small agencies in terms of staff and budgetary resources. Yet, they are usually charged with enforcing ethics and developing an ethical climate for governments for ten of thousands of employees and for a host of other local public officials under their jurisdictions. Moreover, their mission is perhaps as far reaching as any agency of state government - - insuring an ethical and accountable government.

Interviews conducted with the executive staff and related stakeholders serve as the basis for an abbreviated, anecdotal and exploratory case study of the South Carolina State Ethics Commission. The focal point of this essay concerns how the South Carolina Ethics Commission is managed on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis. Although largely descriptive the interviews and literature review will establish the distinctive characteristics about the management of both a small state agency and an ethics agency.

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