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The Culture of Ethics That the Public Sector Needs

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    The current issue of Public Administration Review includes a fascinating article by James Svara of Arizona State University on ethics for public servants. The genesis of Svara’s inquiry is the adoption last year by the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) of a revision of its code of ethics.

    ASPA first adopted a code of ethics in 1984, but other professional organizations had such codes much earlier, going back (at least in this country) to the International City/County Management Association’s code that was adopted in 1924. Svara recounts the history of codes of ethics and reviews the debates about their usefulness. This could not be more timely. Given the seemingly incessant drumbeat of scandals at all levels of government these days, the need has never been greater for a strong culture of ethical behavior in the public sector.

    Codes of ethics for public administrators recognize, first and foremost, that administrators are not just neutral implementers of policy. In fact, “filling in the details” of often vague legislation is often left to professional–but unelected–civil servants. As a result, the view held a century ago that bureaucrats simply carry out the details of policy in some kind of a value-free manner has been almost completely discredited. Almost everyone now recognizes that the cop on the beat, the teacher in the classroom and the doctor in a VA hospital have real power to make policy and therefore affect lives.

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