Topics to be covered include:

Ethics and public administration Public trust Public corruption Public service motivation Ethics management Goal conflict

How do we know if government officials and employees are ethical? Sometimes it is a judgment call; it is not obvious and there is no unanimous opinion on whether an action is ethical or not.

The public trust is a notion that those that serve in the public sector have a responsibility that is larger than their own interest. Those in the public sector are expected to promote the public good, which may come in the form of services for those who are unable to take care of themselves but more likely is an invisible good such as defense or clean air that everyone benefits from and consumes. This public trust is codified in codes of ethics that govern employees and elected officials at all levels of government. Organizations that represent government administrators and elected officials also have professional ethical codes that are to guide the integrity of their members’ behaviors as they work in government positions. Corruption is an obvious form of ethical breach but there are other, more subtle forms, too.

Public administration research has sought to discover where ethics are situated and what motivates public employees to fulfill public service. These types of inquiries shed light on how best to gain compliance and manage ethics to ensure that ethical behavior is the norm. The elusiveness of what


Finish and record

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constitutes ethical behavior is seen in the concept of goal conflict where public employees and citizens clash on how the public’s expectations should be represented in the activities of public servants. This is a contentious issue that can be seen in the recent scrutiny of police conduct around the country.




The definition of ethics is a set of moral principles; a theory or system of moral values; the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group; a guiding philosophy” (Merriam-Webster online, n.d).

Ethics and Public Administration

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Defining Ethical Behavior in Government

Ethics in government can be conceived of as virtues of individual bureaucrats and administrators (Rohr, 1978) or driven by the boundaries of the culture of the organization itself (Cooper, 1998). The problem for public administration scholars is that there is no uniform standard of ethics (Cohen & Eimicke, 1995). So, what exactly is considered ethical?

In lieu of that theory, the government has instituted a number of principles and standards to regulate or at least provide some standardization of what constitutes ethical behavior. Cohen and Eimicke (1995, p. 108) identify five principles of ethics that can guide bureaucrats: 1. Obey and implement the law. 2. Serve the public interest. 3. Avoid doing harm. 4. Take individual responsibility for the process and its consequences. 5. Treat incompetence as an abuse of office.




An ethical violation that is easier to standardize than others is a conflict of interest. Government employees are not permitted to self-deal which is making public decisions that provide them personal financial gain. That is considered an ethical breach and a conflict of interest. Presidents

Putting Principles into Practice: Addressing Conflict of Interest and Performance of Duties

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are expected to deconflict their financial interests. Government employees generally must file an annual conflict of interest statement to identify any outside business or interest that could conflict with the ethical conduct of their official duties.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush addressed conflict of interest when he signed Executive order 12674 Principles of Ethical Conduct for Government Officers and Employees (U.S. Office of Government Ethics). Some of the expectations for government employees of the executive branch include:

Employees shall not hold financial interests that conflict with the conscientious performance of duty.

Employees shall not engage in financial transactions using nonpublic Government information or allow the improper use of such information to further any private interest.

Employees shall not use public office for private gain.

Employees shall endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or the ethical standards promulgated pursuant to this order (Executive Order 12674, 1989).

Ethics in government is tied to fulfilling the public’s trust. Executive Order 12674 (1989) states that “Public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gain.” This expectation echoes the ASPA Code of Ethics and is designed to demonstrate that public servants can be trusted to do what our laws, regulations, and constitutions require at the national, state, and local levels.

Public Trust

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Ethics applies to elected representatives as well as public administrators. Citizens assume that those who are elected to government and take an oath of office are in fact trustworthy. Citizens expect our public representatives to represent us with some level of their own discretion. How much discretion is subject to interpretation. Congressional scholars identify two characteristics of trust from the public: delegate and trustee (Fiorina, 1981). When citizens have a lower level of trust, they treat their representative as a delegate who is expected to check in with the constituency before making major decisions and keep in close communication. When citizens have a higher level of trust, they treat their representatives as a trustee who is given much more latitude to independently make decisions and vote on legislation.

Sometimes public administrators, officials, and even elected representatives are called public servants which stems from the notion that government work is fulfilling a public service and promoting the public good. The public good is the overarching notion that citizens share a common understanding of what the society is supporting or believes. Obviously, not everyone agrees on every point. However, our constitution demonstrates the principles that make up our common understanding of the public good. Even the term public goods reflect a similar expectation of sharing and mutual benefit. Items that are shared as public goods are a defense of the country, preservation of public land, food safety, and environmental protection. All citizens benefit simultaneously and indivisibly from these public goods (Ostrom & Ostrom, 1977). Programs or services that are based on individual benefit are not considered public goods. These might be welfare benefits that are based on personal income or tax breaks that must be earned based on personal financial conditions.

The public trust is the assumption that government officials and employees will behave in the best interests of the public or at least do no harm. This is a very subjective position but one that has been monitored since 1958 by the Pew Charitable Trust in their national public opinion surveys. The question asked is, do you trust the government? (Pew, 2015). There is an expectation that the public trust will be restored when it is violated. In 2017, then Secretary of Health and Human Services, Thomas Price, was criticized for an ethical breach in his conduct because he chartered private planes to take him on domestic trips to conduct government business when commercial flights were available. He stated in his defense, “It is clear to me that in this case, I was not sensitive enough to my concern for the taxpayer. I know as well as anyone that the American people want to know that their hard-earned dollars are being spent wisely by government officials” (Eilperin, 2017).

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A government without defined ethical standards can lead to corruption and scandal. For example, in an earlier lesson, we examined the financially and politically corrupt administration of Boss Tweed in New York’s Tammany Hall in the nineteenth century and the Teapot Dome Scandal in the early twentieth century, where federal officials took bribes. The reform era of government sought to weed out corruption in order to provide for the public trust. With reforms, citizens could feel that their government was accountable both in terms of representation and finances. Over time, the number of regulations to monitor the ethical behavior of both elected and appointed officials has grown. For instance, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) oversees all government ethics, including the White House.

Public Corruption

Public Service Motivation

Let’s take a closer look at what researchers say about public service motivation.

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Public service motivation (PSM) is defined as an individual’s predisposition to respond to motives grounded primarily or uniquely in public institutions” (Perry, 1996). James L. Perry created a 40 question survey instrument that drew out people’s attachments to public service and how they felt about the value of public service. From this study he determined that public service is driven by four factors:

an attraction to public policy making

a commitment to the public interest


self-sacrifice (Perry, 1996).

For example, self-sacrifice is found in the 1961 inauguration address of President John F. Kennedy where he famously called for people to do something for your country. A generation of public servants answered the call by joining the Peace Corps, volunteering, and working in government. This evoked a “willingness of public servants to forego financial rewards for the intangible rewards they received from serving the public” (Perry, 1996).



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Ethics Management

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There has been a wide range of regulations and rules that seek to manage the ethics of public employees. An example is that most elected officials and public employees in local, state, and federal government are subject to rules about accepting gifts and not taking bribes for favors. In some cases, gifts from lobbyists are regulated and must be noted on an annual financial disclosure form. Even the President must note when he receives gifts from foreign governments and their representatives as part of the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Bribery is considered a criminal offense but is not always as easy to prove as it may seem.

State elected officials are particularly prone to oversight to ensure that their relationship with state capital lobbyists is not so cozy that they are personally enriched by the gifts lobbyists wish to provide. Benefits such as tickets to major sporting events, hunting trips, dinners and other types of gifts are generally seen as a conflict of interest. Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia not only took gifts but was convicted in 2014 of bribery, extortion, and conspiracy for accepting those personal gifts because they were taken in exchange for political contracts and favors (Gabriel, 2014). The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the conviction by narrowly defining what is an official act. As quoted in the New York Times (Lipton & Weiser, 2016), the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts stated, “Our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns,” and “setting up a meeting, talking to another official or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more” — does not fit the definition of an “official act.”


The first is compliance approach to ethics management. This is considered a hierarchical form of management. It is the realm of rules and regulations that are part of the organizational structure. Gift rules could fall into this category. State rules on this outline what legislators can and cannot take in great detail. Learn more about the gift rules in all 50 states at the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) at Legislator Gift Restriction OverviewCompliance management is the easier of the two to implement because it can be easily identified and codified. Having a compliance code of ethics keeps government protected from lawsuits that may be filed against

There are two kinds of ethics management in the public sector that are identified (Maesschalck, 2005).

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unethical employees and it keeps a manageable bar of expectations because it is a one-size-fits-all approach to how employees maintain their ethics (Roberts, 2014).

Goal Conflict and Ethics

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The public is seen as the central point of focus for the public sector in terms of who is the constituency of government. What happens when the public employee’s behavior does not match the interests and expectations of a portion of the constituency? A significant example of this is the conflict between police behavior and social justice advocates who feel minorities are at greater risk in their encounters with police than are whites. Public administration professionals are guided by the ASPA Code of Ethics (2014) which includes a tenet on social equity. But not all entities have or practice under a strict code of ethics. How can the public reconcile different codes of ethics as practiced by different groups of public employees?

A current example of this tension is the demands for ethical treatment of minority citizens by the police. Clearly advocacy groups such as Black Lives Matter have a goal that includes ethical treatment for its constituency in situations where they believe it is absent. Police departments, on the other hand, claim to be vigilant in enforcing laws and protecting the safety of officers in the face of hostile situations. While individual police officers may practice integrity in ethics management, there may be a disconnect in ethics management to align police goals with constituency goals.

Melton (2014) points to the problem of goal conflicts that make apparent the difference in values and

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preferences between the organization and the constituency. In the realm of police, there have been calls nationwide for greater compliance, such as wearing body cameras. When the behavior of the police is challenged, it often results in an examination by the State’s Attorney General to determine if criminal charges should be brought. We may not see this as an ethics problem, but rather a violation of law such as assault or murder. When it is positioned as a goal conflict between conflicting expectations, the ethical behavior issue becomes clear. This is not a case of cops taking bribes or abusing their power for financial gain by confiscating evidence such as drugs or cash or even planting evidence to gain a conviction. Those are clear criminal cases. This is a question of whether the police are behaving ethically towards certain groups of people because of a goal conflict.


There continues to be a great deal of interest in how to achieve an ethical public sector. Government at all levels has suffered episodes of significant corruption resulting in scandals and convictions of public leaders and employees who have broken the public trust and enriched themselves in some way through their employment or position in government.

There are numerous ways the government monitors actions and financial transactions to ensure that decisions are ethical and funds are audited. Numerous federal offices from the Government Accounting Office to the Office of Government Ethics enforce rules and regulations to ensure that there is compliance by government employees and public officials. Audits are conducted at every level of government on performance to monitor efficiency and effectiveness as well as ensure that all funds are accounted for.

Despite this effort, public corruption continues to exist and there are regular cases of elected officials who are indicted and convicted or even impeached. Despite these splashy cases, the rank and file of government are likely to either respond to compliance measures or follow their own integrity in order to be public servants. Public Service Motivation may stem from personal altruism, interest in the public

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sector, or commitment to providing the social good. It also may stem from an organizational culture that supports a mission to serve and focus on social equity. Many state and local governments have instituted a code of ethics that prescribes the type of behavior and action that employees should follow. Even the Office of the President instituted an Executive Order to detail the points of behavior and restrictions on actions that are enforced in the executive branch. Managing ethics is often punitive and sometimes contentious. Sometimes ethics are not clear and there is disagreement on what constitutes a breach. The tension in race relations, especially directed at law enforcement is an example of goal conflict that critics point to as a lapse of ethics. If the actions of public employees are at odds with the expectations of a recognizable portion of the population, how is that resolved?


American Society for Public Administration (ASPA). (2013). Code of ethics. Retrieved from https://www.aspanet.org/ASPA/About-ASPA/Code-of-Ethics/ASPA/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of- Ethics.aspx?hkey=fefba3e2-a9dc-4fc8-a686-3446513a4533

Bright, L. (2005). Public employees with high levels of public service motivation: Who they are, where they are, and what do they want? Review of Public Personnel Administration 25(2): 138-154.

Cohen, S., & Eimicke, W. (1995). Ethics and the public administrator. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 537 (January): 96-108.

Cooper, T. (1998). The Responsible Administrator. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Denhardt, J., & Denhardt, R. (2011). The New Public Service: Serving not steering. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Eilperin, J. (2017, September 28). Tom Price apologizes for private-charter flights, pledges to repay taxpayers nearly $52,000. The Washington Post.

Fandos, N. (2017, July 6). Government ethics chief resigns, casting uncertainty of agency. The New York

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Fiorina, M. (1981). Retrospective Voting in American National Elections. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Frederickson, H.G. (1993). Ethics and Public Administration. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Gabriel, T. (2014, September 4). Former governor in Virginia guilty in a bribery case. The New York Times.

International City/County Management Association, ICMA code of ethics. (2017). Retrieved from https://icma.org/icma-code-ethics

Lipton, E., & Weiser, B. (2016, June 27). Supreme Court complicates corruption cases from New York to Illinois. The New York Times.

Maesschalck, J. (2004). Approaches to ethics management in the public sector: A proposed extension of the compliance-integrity continuum. Public Integrity 7(1): 21-41.

Melton, E. (2014). The consequences of conflict: An evaluation of racial disparity and organizational performance. Public Organization Review 14(3): 267-284.

Moynihan, D. & Pandey, S. (2007). The role of organizations in fostering public service motivation. Public Administration Review 67(1): 40-53.

Ostrom, V. & Ostrom, E. (1977). Public Goods and Public Choices. In Ostrom, E. Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington school of political economy. New York: Lexington Books, pp. 3-36.

Perry, J. & Hondeghem, A. (2008). Editor’s Introduction. In Perry, J. & Hondeghem, A. (Eds.) Motivation in Public Management: The call of public service. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-16.

Perry, J. (1996). Measuring public service motivation: An assessment of construct reliability and validity. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 6(1): 5-22.

Pew Charitable Trust. (2015). Beyond distrust: How Americans view their government. New York: author. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/1-trust-in-government-1958-2015/

Rohr, J. (1978). Ethics for bureaucrats. New York: Marcel-Deckker.

Roberts, R. (2009). The rise of compliance-based ethics management: Implications for organizational ethics. Public Integrity 11(3): 261-277.

Svara, J. (2014). Who are the keepers of the code? Articulating and upholding ethical standards in the field of public administration. Public Administration Review 74(5): 561-569.

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U.S. Government Accountability Office. (n.d.). About GAO. Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/about/index.html

U.S. Office of Government Ethics. Executive Order 12674, (1989, April 12). Principles of ethical conduct for government officers and employees. Retrieved from https://www.oge.gov/Web/oge.nsf/Resources/Executive+Order+12674+ (Apr.+12,+1989):++Principles+of+Ethical+Conduct+for+Government+Officers+and+Employees

Whistleblower Protection Act, 103 Stat. 16 (1989). Retrieved from http://legislink.org/us/stat-103-16

Winsor, M. (2017, May 17). Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton both faced impeachment over obstruction of justice. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/US/richard-nixon-bill-clinton-faced- impeachment-obstruction-justice/story?id=47460022

Image Citations

“About 100 people remained gathered outside the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion 7 days after Philando Castile was shot to death by a St. Anthony Police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. Falcon Heights is a suburb of St. Paul and Minneapolis.” by

Author: Fibonacci Blue; License: CC by Attribution



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