Commentary: Codes, Damn Codes, and Laws: Continuing Controversies in Public Administration Ethics

Published date01 September 2014
Date01 September 2014
Stuart C. Gilman is senior partner
in the Global Integrity Group, which has
worked with numerous governments and
organizations on anticorruption campaigns
throughout the world. He retired as head
of the United Nations Global Programme
Against Corruption. He is former president
of the Ethics Resource Center and served
as senior executive in the U.S. Off‌i ce of
Government Ethics. He has also served
on the faculties of St. Louis University,
the University of Virginia, and the Federal
Executive Institute while teaching as
an adjunct at Georgetown and George
Washington universities.
Codes, Damn Codes, and Laws: Continuing Controversies in Public Administration Ethics 571
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 5, pp. 571–572. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12258.
Stuart C. Gilman
Global Integrity Group
With apologies to Mark Twain,1 much of the
conversation about public administration
codes of ethics suf‌f ers from very dif‌f erent
visions of what codes are for and contradictory expec-
tations as to what belongs in them. James H. Svara’s
excellent article, “Who Are the Keepers of the Code?
Articulating and Upholding Ethical Standards in the
Field of Public Administration,” uses the history of
the ethics codes of the American Society for Public
Administration (ASPA) to explain the development of
its most recent code. In so doing, it of‌f ers many of the
arguments about what codes should be and whether
quasi-professional organizations like ASPA should have
codes at all, and it shows how these controversies led
to the adoption of ASPA’s 2013 code. A casual reader
might conclude that most of the controversies discussed
are settled. But too often ignored controversies continue.
Codes for Semiprofessional Organizations
Pressure on ASPA’s leadership led it to adopt a code or
revise it.  e International City/County Management
Association regularly reviews, revises, and enforces its
rigorous code. ASPA, however, is a voluntary asso-
ciation of professionals interested in furthering the
quality of public service through research and applied
work. Most practitioner members of the association
have a “f‌i rst” profession (e.g., accounting, engineer-
ing, or economics), with public administration as
their “second” profession. Many practitioner members
have an ethics code for their f‌i rst profession, a legal
or regulatory code for their government position, and
the ASPA ethics code as well. With so many codes,
are we taking away from their value? Should there be
better linkage between them?
What Codes Are For
Codes do not make bad people good. However, they
can allow good public servants to make better ethical
decisions. Judith Lichtenberg (1996) has presented
one of the most persuasive essays in favor of develop-
ing codes. Interestingly, she claims that a good code
presents a “rebuttable proposition.”  at is, it can
force an individual to defend an action if it appears
to violate an ethical standard. In this way, a code
maintains individual responsibility while providing a
mirror to assist in ethical ref‌l ection.
Ethics codes in public administration have to apply to
the entire range of of‌f‌i cials covered.  e dif‌f‌i culty is
that a particular of‌f‌i cial’s approach to ethical standards
might be dif‌f erent from that of his or her colleagues.
Some individuals seek peer approval as a standard
of ethics, while others simply want to be a “good”
person. Some public servants only want to know “is it
against the law or regulation?,” while others want to
understand what principles underlie specif‌i c elements
of the code (Lewis and Gilman 2012, chap. 8).  e
problem with purely aspirational codes as well as
purely applied codes is that they often ignore these
dif‌f erences. How valuable is the code if it makes sense
to only a segment of the population?  e 2013 ASPA
code has gone back to a less applied and more aspira-
tional model. Is this the right balance? By going back
to an older model, is it more or less inclusive?
How to Develop Codes
ASPA’s founding members wanted to marry the work
of public administrators with that of those who teach
and research in the area. My impression is that only
a few members have played both roles.  e litera-
ture on developing codes suggests that those most
impacted should develop the code (Ethics Resource
Center 2003). Although participation in the ASPA
code revision was open to all members, academics
both led and had the largest voice in creating drafts.
is is ironic, as the code’s focus is almost entirely
on ethical expectations for practitioners; academic
members’ ethical issues are mostly ignored. Should
the code speak to both practitioners and academics?
Should the association’s code focus on ethical values
the practitioners should demonstrate, or is it a code
for all ASPA members?
Making Codes Relevant
ere is general agreement that the purpose of codes is
to impact behavior (Gilman and Stout 2005). For some,
Codes, Damn Codes, and Laws: Continuing Controversies
in Public Administration Ethics

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