Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

A Critique of Ethics Laws

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

A Critique of Ethics Laws

Article excerpt

Ethics laws, which prescribe and prohibit certain behavior for public officials, have been enacted in response to recent scandals in federal and state government. These laws focus on methods which include financial disclosure, defining and prohibiting behaviors such as conflict of interest, and restricting private sector employment in matters directly related to public life. While these laws have some benefits, such as providing more information to the public about elected and appointed officials, they do not go far enough either to define, or prevent, unethical behavior. This paper suggests that a broader approach, focusing on specific actions of public officials, would be a better way to prevent unethical behavior in the public sector.

"The stewardship of public officers is a serious and sacred trust... Public office means serving the public and nobody else".(1) These words, written nearly sixty years ago when Governor Franklin Roosevelt removed a county sheriff for corruption, remind us that attention to unethical behavior by government officials has been an ongoing necessity. Even before the United States Constitution was adopted, the Federalist Papers warned readers of the risks of corrupt government. The current interest in ethics in government is the latest phase in an ongoing concern over the integrity of public officials, and the trust of the public in their government. Conflict of interest, influence peddling, election abuses, fraud, and bribery have joined more subtle forms of unethical behavior such as jobs for spouses, book royalties, gifts, and expensive trips as activities of concern. Misuse of one's official position for personal gain has been a not-uncommon occurrence in government.

Early efforts at reform assumed that the voters, if and when they get tired of the corruption, would correct abuses by "throwing the rascals out" of government. This corrective measure has been supplemented by reform laws such as civil service; limitations on term of office; converting certain appointed offices (judges, for example) to elected and vice-versa; and legislation defining certain behaviors as unethical.

In recent years, federal and state governments have focused on legislative approaches to defining, and dealing with, unethical behavior by appointed and elected officials. Have these laws improved the ethical climate of government? The premise of this paper is that, rather than improving the ethical climate, they have created a cosmetic approach which does not really address the problems of ethics in government.

Current Approaches to Ethics in Government

The Watergate scandals of the mid-1970s are generally thought of as the beginning of a new awareness of the problems of ethics in government. The reactions of both federal and state governments to this highly-publicized series of events led to numerous laws dealing with matters such as campaign financing reforms; conflict of interest, financial disclosure; bans on certain kinds of employment (the "revolving door" syndrome); and open meetings laws and freedom of information acts. In addition, committees and commissions were created by the federal government, and many state governments, to administer and enforce the newly-enacted, or newly-reformed, laws.(2)

Ethics laws define certain behavior as unethical, and prohibit certain public officials from engaging in this behavior. The federal Ethics in Government Act of 1978 was enacted in direct response to the Watergate scandals. It has been amended some 13 times since its original enacting. The law provides for several reforms in government, including financial disclosure; prohibition on post-office employment in areas directly relating to government service (the revolving door syndrome); prohibition on direct representation of clients on matters in which the employee was involved, and conflict of interest restrictions. Congressional ethics laws deal primarily with campaign finance reform, financial disclosure; limitations on outside sources of income; and conflict of interest for the legislator and spouse. …

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