Public Administration, Ethics and Values
- Understanding ethics and values
- The importance of ethics and values in public administration
- Codes of conduct in public administration
- Levels of ethics and values in public administration
- Criticisms of ethics in public administration
- How does hierarchy of ethics govern the behaviour of people holding public
- Is it ever appropriate for a government official to lie to the public?
- Do you accept the view that public officials should be trained in ethics?
- Although ethics and morality are similar, what is the distinction between the
- Explain ways to improve the ethical behavior of those in a public organization
and provide examples of managing ethics
- Ethics is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with what is morally good
and bad, right and wrong.
- Traditionally, ethics has been undertaken to analyse values
i. Ethics involve the examination and analysis of the logic, values, and
principles that are used to justify morality
ii. It considers what is meant by principles such as justice, or the public
interest; their implications for conduct in particular situations; and how one
might argue for one principle over another in any particular decision
iii. Ethics therefore takes what is given or prescribed and asks what is meant
and why. Therefore, ethics is related to conduct, and is a critical reflection
- Ethics is doing the right thing
- Acting on right values and not acting on wrong values (Van Wart, 1998)
- ”Involves thinking systematically about morals and conduct and making
judgements about right and wrong” (Lewis, 1991)
- It is the “process by which we clarify right from wrong and act on what we
take to be right” (Denhardt, 1995) 2
- Ethics in public service is about the practical application of moral standards in
government Chapman’s (2000)
- A set of standards that guide our conduct and help us when we face
decisions that involve moral choices (Greene, 2000)
- Ethics is therefore a system of code of conduct, based on universal moral
duties and obligations which indicate how one should behave; it deals with
the ability to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and propriety from
Differences between Morals and Ethics
- Morality/morals assume some accepted mode of behaviour that is given by a
religious tradition, a culture, a social class, a community, or a family.
- It involves expected courses of conduct that are rooted in both formal rules
and informal norms.
Morality includes certain things:
- Decent, young people do not engage in pre-marital sex
- Family comes first
- One should not intentionally display one’s wealth
- A guest in one’s home must always be treated with respect
- Never drive under the influence of intoxicants
- A day’s pay requires a day’s work
- Follow the orders of those above you in an organisation
The Importance of the Study of Ethics
1. Ethics can help public administrators arrive at decisions more quickly. When
confronted with decisions involving conflicting values, the person who has
thought through and clarified his or her own values does not lose time
wondering what to do. Such a person can act more swiftly in making that
2. It leads to greater consistency in decision making. Administrators who are
capable of doing this are seen by subordinates as being fair and consistent;
they avoid the charge of treating employees unequally.
3. The study of ethics can reveal the value dimensions of a decision that would
otherwise seem value-free.
4. The study of ethics can help public administrators make more reflective
judgements, that is, one that can be defended in the public.
Levels of Ethics
a. Personal morality
- Basic sense of right and wrong.
- A function of our past 3
- Dependence upon such factors such as parental influences,
religious beliefs, cultural and social norms, and one’s own personal
b. Professional ethics
- Public administrators increasingly recognise a set of professional
norms and rules that obligates them to act in certain professional ways.
- This refers to the personal ethical standards that public servants
bring to their decisions and recommendations.
- Can be viewed as a system of norms, meaning how things “should”
or “ought” to be.
c. Organisational ethics
- Every organisation has an environment of culture that includes both
formal and informal rules of ethical conduct.
- Public organisations have many of such rules: public law, executive
orders; and agency rules and regulations are formal organisational norms
for ethical behaviour.
d. Social ethics
- Oblige members of a given society to act in ways that both protect
individuals and further the progress of the group as a whole.
- Formal to the extent that they can be found in the laws of a given
- Informal to the extent that they are part of an individual’s social
e. Policy ethics
- Refers to the ethical implications of policy issues and
- Ex: abortion
Code of Ethics in the Public Service
- A statement of professional standards of conduct to which the practitioners of
a profession may they subscribe.
- Codes of ethics are usually not legally binding, so they may not be taken too
seriously as constraints on behaviour.
- A statement of principles and standards about the right conduct of public
servants (Kernaghan and Siegel).
Benefits of Code of Ethics in the Public Service
a. Unwritten rules in the form of understandings and practices leave much
room for argument as the content of rules and what penalties must be paid for
b. Codes can promote public trust and confidence in the ethical behaviour of
public servants. 4
c. Codes can reduce unethical practices by discouraging and publishing
them. They provide of the means by which political leaders and senior
managers can bold public servants accountable of their activities.
d. Codes can sensitise public servants to the reality that the ethical value
dimensions of their decisions and recommendations are as important as, and
often more important that, the technical, legal, and political dimensions.
e. The development of a code of ethics may prompt governments to
reassess their existing written or unwritten rules so that the rights and
participation of public servants in regard to certain activities may be
f. It can project ideals, norms, and obligations.
g. “Codes can establish an ethical status to which members of a profession
may aspire – the moral optimum rather than the moral minimum established
by ethics legislation.”
Criticisms of Codes of Ethics
What are the problems associated with codes of ethics in the public service?
1. Broad ethical principles contained in many codes are often difficult to apply in
2. They are difficult to enforce.
3. The large scale and complexity of government makes it difficult to draft a
code of conduct that can be applied fairly and consistently across a large
number of departments.
4. Codes can adversely affect the individual rights and private lives of public
5. Certain ethical and value issues such as determining what measure of risk to
the public is acceptable are not easily amenable to management