Idaho Transportation

Public Affairs Office
P.O. Box 7129
Boise, ID 83707
Fax: 208.334.8563

Ethical Principles for Public Servants

This article was originally developed and published in 1992 as a brochure by the Council Working Group on Ethics (Elliot Richardson, Chair) of the Council for Excellence in Government, Washington, D.C. The original version is now out of print. It was recently reformatted and reprinted by the Kentucky Transportation Center at the request of Calvin G. Grayson, retired director of the Center and former Secretary of Transportation.
Preamble. It is printed in the Transporter as a service to ITD employees at the request of Garth Newman in Materials.

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.

Core Values
Public service is a public trust. The highest obligation of every individual in government is to fulfill that trust. Each person who undertakes the public trust assumes two paramount obligations:
• To serve the public interest; and
• To perform with integrity.

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.

Guiding Principles
The core values stated above should be the foundation of all actions by public servants.

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.
• Integrity also requires of you the courage to insist on what you believe to be right and the fortitude to refuse to go along with what you believe to be ethically wrong. You can never be sure what is right and what is wrong, however, until you have listened to the views of others, weighed the relevant interests and values and taken the trouble to understand the facts.
• All hard questions involve tough choices between competing claims. These choices involve loyalty to one’s organization, respect for authority, recognition of the policy role of political appointees, regard for technical expertise and institutional memory, responsiveness to the public’s right to know and sensitivity to the need for confidentiality. How good a public servant you are depends on how well and how honorably you balance these claims.
• Greed is a far less common corrupter of public servants than ego, envy, timidity, ambition, or a craving for publicity. To know how to manage and keep these in check demands character and discipline.
• The true public servant:

– Will not act out of spite, bias, or favoritism;
– Will not tell the boss only what she or he wants to hear;
– Respects the competence and views of others;
– Does not succumb to peer or political pressures;
– Contributes to a climate of mutual trust and respect;
– Refuses to let official action be influenced by personal relationships, including those arising from past or prospective employment;
– Has the courage of his or her convictions;
– Is not seduced by flattery;
– Unflinchingly accepts responsibility;
– Does not try to shift blame to others;
– Can distinguish between the need to support an unwelcome decision and the duty to blow the whistle; and
– Never forgets that she or he is working for the people — all the people.

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 Servants
The ethical principles enunciated in the Council’s statement should be made a part of the work ethic of all government organizations. In order to maximize the incorporation of these principles into the day-to-day performance of public service, we believe that government organizations should take the following steps:

1. Exercise Leadership
The members of any organization take their cues from the actions of those who hold top leadership positions in the organization. These leaders thus have special responsibilities within their organizations:
• Advocate the core values and exemplify the guiding principles;
• Evaluate their subordinates’ performance in the light of these standards; and
• Seek others with strong ethical values to work in the organization.
2. Monitor and Evaluate
In addition to assessing the ethical performance of individuals, there is also a need to monitor and evaluate the organization itself with respect to:
• How well the values and principles are understood and followed; and
• The extent to which they influenced the organization’s ethical climate.
3. Provide Ongoing Training
Ethics training should be broadened in focus beyond the current briefings on laws, regulations, and rules. Training sessions should include case studies utilizing the practical precepts. Continuous training is required to keep the core ethical values alive and relevant within a government agency.
4. Provide Sources of Advice
Employees with specific ethical dilemmas should have access to established sources of sensible, sympathetic and reliable advice. These should be easy enough to use so that they can be employed for less than crucial, but still troubling, questions. The means of providing such guidance might include a hotline or off-the-record discussions with peers.
5. Assure Compliance
The organization must be vigorous in insisting upon adherence to its declared ethical standards. It follows that unambiguous failures to observe them must be dealt with firmly.

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).