Deregulating the Public Service: Can Government Be Improved?

By John J. Diiulio Jr. | Go to book overview

4
The Ethics of Deregulation--
or the Deregulation of Ethics?

John P. Burke

THE EFFORT to ensure the ethical conduct of public officials provides a classic illustration of what is both good and bad about government regulations. As in private life, where ethical behavior is something more than avoiding bad conduct or wrongdoing, in government it can involve a positive commitment to public service. Ethical awareness can energize officials so that they are more actively committed to their jobs. Ethical values can foster a sense of direction, if not a more encompassing ethos, that points individual conduct toward a larger public purpose. Thus ethical conduct in government may be important in creating the kind of philosophy of public service that embodies the aims of a revitalized and effective federal bureaucracy.

The way ethics has been understood at the federal level, however, is a far cry from this more ambitious sense of a public philosophy or set of values widely held, regularly applied, and serving broad public ends. Much of the government's emphasis has been on ever more finely tuned regulations that seek to impose various criminal, civil, or administrative sanctions for inappropriate conduct. Ethics regulations, moreover, are concerned almost exclusively with petty criminality and the potential use of public office for private gain: detailed financial reporting requirements, intricate rules to control gift giving among employees, and a welter of guidelines to regulate job seeking in the private sector and a person's postemployment contacts with former colleagues. Few if any rules are directed toward improving the creativity and morale of government employees or encouraging the exercise of individual responsibility and discretion in ways that further the goals of the public sector.

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