Who Are the Keepers of the Code? Articulating and Upholding Ethical Standards in the Field of Public Administration

Date01 September 2014
Published date01 September 2014
James H. Svara is visiting professor
in the School of Government at the
University of North Carolina and former
professor in the School of Public Affairs at
Arizona State University (ASU). He served
as co-chair (with James Nordin) of the
Working Group to Revise the ASPA Code
of Ethics (2011–13) and chair of the Ad
Hoc Committee on Implementation of the
ASPA Code (2013–14). Support for these
activities was provided by the Lincoln
Center for Applied Ethics at ASU.
E-mail: james.svara@sog.unc.edu
Who Are the Keepers of the Code? Articulating and Upholding Ethical Standards in the Field of Public Administration 561
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 5, pp. 561–569. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12230.
James H. Svara
Arizona State University
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Establishing a code of ethics has been a challenge in
public administration. Ethics is central to the practice of
administration, but the broad f‌i eld of public administra-
tion has had dif‌f‌i culty articulating clear and meaning-
ful standards of behavior and developing a means of
upholding a code of ethics. Although a number of special-
ized professional associations in public service adopted
codes, starting with the International City/County
Management Association in 1924 and others after 1960,
the full range of public administrators did not have an
association to represent them until the American Society
for Public Administration (ASPA) was founded in 1939.
Despite early calls for a code of ethics in ASPA, the f‌i rst
code was adopted in 1984, with revisions in 1994,
but neither code had a process for enforcement. A new
code approved in 2013 builds on the earlier codes and
increases the prospects for ASPA to work with other pro-
fessional associations to broaden awareness of the ethical
responsibilities to society of all public administrators.
It has long been recognized that ethics is inte-
gral to public administration. Although ethical
behavior is not always achieved at the individual
or organizational level, it is obvious that an essential
element of administration is missing when unethical
behavior occurs. Still, establishing clear and mean-
ingful standards to guide behavior has been dif‌f‌i cult
for the practitioners and scholars who make up the
f‌i eld. Although specialized groups of administrators
that organized themselves as professional associa-
tions developed codes of ethics, starting with the
International City/County Management Association
(ICMA) 90 years ago, the profession more gener-
ally, as represented by a diverse membership asso-
ciation such as the American Society for Public
Administration (ASPA), was
slow in adopting a code of eth-
ics.  is article examines the
shifting attitudes about codes of
ethics in public administration
and the progression of ASPA’s
code of ethics as a study of the
challenges of developing a set
of enforceable standards for a large and heterogeneous
group of practitioners. Understanding the issues and
challenges that have inf‌l uenced the development of
ethical standards for administrators can contribute to
advancing our understanding of ethics and improve
the prospects for ef‌f ectively implementing a code of
ethics that applies broadly to public service positions.
After calls for establishing a code for the profession
of public administration starting in the late 1930s,
ASPA—the association created in 1939 with the
intention of organizing the f‌i eld—did not act and was
often criticized for its failure to approve a code of eth-
ics until its forty-f‌i fth year.  e ICMA code of ethics
was of‌f ered as an example of what might be created
for public administration generally (Mosher 1938),
but for decades, scholars and practitioners in public
administration generally viewed codes negatively
and gave little attention to the study or promotion
of ethics (Cooper 1994). ASPA did not take formal
actions to advance ethical codes within the f‌i eld until
the 1970s.  e questions of whether to have a code
of ethics and what it should contain have been central
to the debate about whether public administration is
a profession as opposed to a collection of professions
with vague, shared values (Mosher 1968; Pugh 1988).
e f‌i rst code of ethics adopted by ASPA in 1984
was an important step that established fundamental
standards shared by public administrators. It was
revised in 1994 with reorganization and clarif‌i cation
of the sources of ethical standards. A new version was
approved in 2013 that broadened the scope of values
and standards for administrators who serve the public
across f‌i elds and levels of government and other sectors.
e debate over the appropri-
ateness, content, and imple-
mentation of a code of ethics
for public administration is
examined in this article.  ere
were shared values in the public
administration community
Who Are the Keepers of the Code? Articulating
and Upholding Ethical Standards in the Field
of Public Administration
e debate over the
appropriateness, content, and
implementation of a code of
ethics for public administration
is examined.

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