Revisiting the Core of Our Good Government Ethos

Date01 March 2015
Published date01 March 2015
186 Public Administration Review • March | April 2015
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 2, pp. 186–187. © 2015 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12350.
James L. Perry
Indiana University, Bloomington
Revisiting the Core of Our Good Government Ethos
D uring the last decade, I have been fortunate
to travel extensively outside North America.
I have been resident scholar at Katholieke
Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, Yonsei University, South
Korea, and The University of Hong Kong, among
many other stops in my travels. As an American, I
carried a sense of superiority that our administrative
institutions were relatively corruption-free. My sense of
superiority was reinforced by comparative national cor-
ruption indices, which ranked the United States highly.
In the last couple of years, however, I have become less
smug about America s freedom from corruption. My
smugness eroded gradually. One factor has been the
steady drumbeat of stories related to administrative
corruption appearing in the American press. These
stories seemed to touch every level of political and
administrative actor, from the selling of office by the
Governor of Virginia, to undue influence of lobbyists
on attorneys general, to resignations of city managers
and arrests of mayors in south Florida, to broad ethi-
cal and performance failures in the Secret Service.
Another contributor to my awakening about corruption
is “The Impact of Public Officials’ Corruption on the
Size and Allocation of U.S. State Spending,” by Cheol
Liu and John Mikesell, which appeared in the May/
June 2014 issue of Public Administration Review (PAR ) .
The conclusion of the article is sobering—that the most
corrupt (as measured by federal criminal convictions)
state governments in the United States may be costing
state taxpayers dearly. More revealing was the response
to the article from news outlets, social media, blogs,
and other media (see Altmetric measures at http://www.
com&citation_id=2309731 ), which drew attention of a
mass audience, not only in the United States but glob-
ally, too. The response to the article reflects that profes-
sionals and citizens care deeply about the integrity of
their institutions.
The most recent evidence to erode my smugness is
Zephyr Teachout ’ s ( 2014 ), Corruption in America:
From Benjamin Franklin s Snuff Box to Citizens United .
Teachout, Professor of Law at Fordham University,
offers a sweeping historical perspective about cor-
ruption in America. Her thesis mirrors my growing
discomfort with America s status as a pillar against
corruption. She contends that the Founding Fathers
established much stricter rules than they had known
in Europe. Their goal was to create a system that
would be populated by people of civic virtue who
would be buffered from temptations that could cor-
rode that virtue. Teachout builds a compelling case for
the diminishing buffer between virtue and corruption
in America.
Can we blame what may be a rise in corruption on a
single, generic source, such as changing legal rules or
the New Public Management movement? Probably
not. Corruption associated with public contract-
ing, for instance, is rampant in countries that never
discovered a “new” public management. We do know,
however, that changing institutions are ushering in
new ways of doing public business and we need to be
attentive to consequences.
As my smugness about America s freedom from cor-
ruption has diminished, I have come to appreciate
that freedom from corruption is a near universal value
and metric for the adequacy of public administra-
tion around the world. My travels to countries like
Colombia, South Korea, and the People s Republic of
China make me keenly aware of concerns about and
problems posed by corruption. I was just not prepared
to admit that we have a good deal of unfinished work,
even in the United States.
Our colleague, Professor Philip Joyce, recently
observed in a column he writes for Governing (Joyce
2014 ) that corruption is intertwined with ethics. He
argues that much more can be done, both in gov-
ernment and our professional schools, to reinforce
anticorruption and ethical integrity. The immediate
trigger for Professor Joyce s column was Jim Svara s
( 2014 ) article in the September/October issue of PAR ,

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