Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Ethics in Government: From a Winter of Despair to a Spring of Hope

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Ethics in Government: From a Winter of Despair to a Spring of Hope

Article excerpt

The issue of ethics in public service is as old as government itself. Yet "post-Watergate morality" has produced an enduring and unprecedented level of concern about the integrity of democratic governance (Garment, 1991). In the 1990s alone, the continuous stream of revelations, allegations, and investigations--involving presidents, presidential advisors, a U.S. Senator, a Speaker of the House of Representatives, a Ways and, Means Committee chairman, cabinet secretaries, a Supreme Court nominee, Gulf War syndrome spokesmen, campaign contributors, and numerous state and local official--suggests that this concern is unlikely to change any time soon. Nonetheless, this may be a Dickensian "tale of two cities": when there is despair, there also may be hope.

Indeed, ethical considerations can hardly be overlooked in a time of popular reforms that attempt to transform the public service ethos in the name of productivity (Gore, 1993). They are of fundamental importance to the quality of democracy and its administration. "Questions of morality and right conduct," Jeremy Plant (1997) points out, "are now considered as significant as the traditional concerns of Wilsonian Public Administration" like efficiency.

Driven by the increase in public attention (Adams, et al., 1993) and the recognition of the underlying importance of ethical conduct in government (Thompson, 1992), there have been several national ethics conferences (Park City, 1991; Tampa, 1995; St. Louis, 1996), a recently revised workbook (Mertins et al., 1994; also see Lewis, 1991), a case book (Pasquerella, et al., 1996), and a new journal (Public Integrity Annual 1996). In addition) much of the writing in the field has been codified (Madsen and Shafritz, 1992 and Richter, et al., 1990; also see Bowman, 1991; Frederickson, 1993; Cooper, 1994; Cooper and Wright, 1994; Reynolds, 1995).

In the context of these events, the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) promulgated its newly-revamped code of ethics in 1995. The association's Professional Ethics Committee subsequently requested that a membership survey, based on the senior author's 1989 survey of the same organization (Bowman, 1990), be conducted to obtain an initial assessment of the effectiveness of the code. This was especially propitious timing because the intervening years witnessed the passing of the Decade of Greed and the coming of the Decade of Reinventing Government, a period of turbulent change that has included innovations, downsizing, and, as noted, scandals at all levels of government.

A questionnaire (consisting of agree-disagree statements as well as several multiple choice and open-ended items), with a copy of the ASPA Code of Ethics, was mailed in spring 1996 to a random sample of 750 administrators who are members of the society. Usable replies were received from 59 percent of those contacted, a respectable response rate for this methodology and one comparable to earlier research.(1) A profile of the respondents, which matches the ASPA practitioner membership, reveals a group that is predominantly white, male, well educated, experienced in local government, a middle or senior level manager, relatively high income, moderate to liberal in political philosophy, and holds at least a six-year membership in ASPA.(2)

The results explore three topics in ascending order of emphasis: perceptions regarding ethics in society and government, the nature of integrity in public agencies, and ASPAs Code. The implications of the data, and the part that a professional organization can play to enhance honorable behavior, are then examined.

Ethics in Society

Several questions probed respondents' perceptions of ethical concerns in the nation. The findings indicate that these administrators do not believe that contemporary interest in morality is ephemeral. Most (83 percent) reject the claim that "The current concern of American society with ethics in government is a passing fad" (10 percent agree; the balance are undecided). …

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