We, the Principals of the Council for Excellence in Government, each of whom has served in one or more responsible government posts, believe that the time has come to refocus the meaning of “ethics in government.”
In recent years the federal government has placed increasing reliance on specific laws, regulations, and rules to guide the behavior of its officers and employees. Each new scandal has brought a demand for new and more stringent requirements. The result is a plethora of restrictions aimed at eliminating any and all situations that someone might perceive as exploitable by officers or employees for their own benefit, or as placing them under obligation to a person whose interests could be affected by their actions.
We recognize that rules of this kind – the prohibition of conflicts of interest, for example – can help to maintain public confidence in government. Their primary purpose, however, is not to promote high ethical standards, but to dispel the suspicion of unethical behavior.
Moreover, some current restrictions go too far. In addition to deterring good people from taking government jobs, they emphasize appearances at the cost of diverting attention from the basic ethical principles that should guide and inspire public service.
Prescribing rules of behavior in the absence of a clear and broadly shared understanding of the moral standards they are meant to uphold is like trying to build a house before the foundation is laid. Those expected to follow the rules must be able to recognize and identify with the basic principles that underlie them. We believe, therefore, that it has become essential to revive the central role of these principles. In launching this effort, we do not have in mind the kind of headline-winning misbehavior that is rooted in outright dishonesty, greed, bad judgment, or ignorance.
Our concern, rather, is with the more widespread, insidious, go-along-to-get-along attitude that infects and impairs the effectiveness and image of government every day. We also hope that by reaffirming the values and purposes of public service we can help to increase awareness of the special satisfactions that distinguish it from other occupations.
These are the commitments implicit in all public service. In addition to faithful adherence to the ethical principles enjoined upon all honest and decent people, public employees have a duty to discern, understand, and meet the needs of their fellow citizens. That is, after all, the definition of a public servant.
They are too general, however, to govern the resolution of concrete ethical problems. In an attempt to spell out the practical implications of these core values, therefore, we have articulated the principles set forth below.
We address them to you, today’s public servants across our nation, in the hope that they will guide your day-to-day work and help you to deal with the ethical dilemmas you so frequently face:
• Integrity requires of you the consistent pursuit
of the merits. Your willingness to speak up, to argue, to question and
to criticize is as essential to determination of the merits as the readiness
to invite ideas, encourage debate and accept criticism.
But general propositions, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., observed, do not decide concrete cases. To deal with the latter, your only recourse is to consult your colleagues, listen to your conscience, and think hard. Some of us also pray.
Implementation of Ethical Principles for Public
Reprinted from Kentucky Transportation Center’s The Link Summer 2004 edition and the Winter 2005 edition of Gem State Roads (Idaho’s Technology Transfer Center).