Government and Ethics

Ethics in government or the public sector, as a popular movement, is not a new phenomenon, and is certainly not a result of the Watergate affair of the 1970s. The ethics movement emerged in the late 19th century as a response to a highly visible system of public patronage and spoils and a desire for "good government," as the activists of the day would define it. The aim of these activists was to create a government that was politically responsive, populated by incorruptible public administrators who aimed unwaveringly to serve the people in the most moral way within the confines of a democratic system.

The second evolution of ethical activism in the United States occurred during the New Deal, in the 1930s under the Roosevelt administration, as a result of the growth and increased complexity of the expanded government. In the New Deal, as part of the "pump-prime" economic policies, public administration grew, which raised new issues regarding administrative discretion in areas such as national defense, public education and especially on the topic of school integration. Also introduced to the ethical debate was the idea of the possibility of administrative ethics that would emphasize a focus on individual administrative ethics and moral judgment.

The third evolution of this area was started by students of public policy, rather than those working in public administration. This evolution began to pick up steam in the 1960s and began to look at the rational scientific methods of ethical analysis and moral reasoning rather than the content of policies, the moral judgments of individual administrators or the democratic administrative ethos.

The Watergate scandal of the Nixon government in the mid-1970s was arguably the biggest influence on contemporary political ethics due to the nature of the scandal and the investigation that followed it. Before the Watergate scandal, it was generally accepted that graft was part of public politics. For example, people quietly accepted that the local sheriff was living a higher quality of life than his salary could possibly allow, or that an attorney-turned-governor's law firm would do very well during that governor's term in office.

In the backlash of the Watergate affair, the presidential branch of the government saw more than 100 well-respected public employees in the highest levels of government leave under a cloud of suspicion. Under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act, the rules of conduct for federal employees and officials changed and they saw their actions become scrutinized more intensively and judged in a different way than the way their actions would otherwise be judged by the standards of private industry. The 1978 Ethics in Government Act was passed by public ballot, and it is assume that if it had been voted on by private ballot it would probably have been defeated by a 2-to-1 ratio due to the vested interests of politicians.

An effective government ethics law needs to have the following three components to be truly effective: a code of ethics, disclosure and administration. Without one of these elements, a government or political office could not maintain a proper and thorough code of ethics.

A code of ethics needs to be short and clear and most importantly needs to be understood by all employees without the need for a lawyer to explain it to them. It should also impose a minimum standard that is equally applicable to all in public office, from president to appointee. A disclosure is when a government official must make public any potential conflict of interest. The disclosure must be followed by a recusal, where the government employee actively disqualifies himself or herself from discussing, acting or voting on the matter at hand, especially if it violates the government's code of ethics. The purpose of the disclosure is actually a preemptive measure to make sure that no one can call into question the government's actions on the grounds of a potential conflict of interest.

The final part of an effective government ethics law is administration, meaning training and education, advice, waivers, disclosure and enforcement. Enforcement, for example must be seen to be outside the political system and can in no way be affected by a public official who may have a vested interest in the position. The enforcement of a government code of ethics is traditionally the responsibility of an ethics office or commission that while fully independent, is also responsible for giving impartial advice to employees and providing training to them to make sure that the code of ethics is properly upheld.

Government and Ethics: Selected full-text books and articles

American Ethics and Public Policy By Abraham Kaplan Oxford University Press, 1963
The American Moralist: On Law, Ethics, and Government By George Anastaplo Ohio University Press, 1992
Both Judge and Party: Why Congressional Ethics Committees Are Unethical By Thompson, Dennis F Brookings Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 1995
Ethics in Government: From a Winter of Despair to a Spring of Hope By Bowman, James B.; Williams, Russell L Public Administration Review, Vol. 57, No. 6, November-December 1997
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Classics of Administrative Ethics By Willa Bruce Westview Press, 2001
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