Study shows lack of ethics programs
A major ethics scandal may soon unfold in the public sector unless government agencies, particularly local and state governments, institute strong ethics programs, according to a report from the Arlington, Va.-based Ethics Resource Center (ERC). Those programs, according to ERC, must create an “ethical environment” in government workspaces.
Almost one-quarter of the public sector employees responding to ERC’s National Government Ethics Survey, released in January, said there is a “strong pressure to compromise standards” in their work environments. About 63 percent of the local government employees in the survey said they had observed at least one type of misconduct in the previous year, primarily abusive behavior, misuse of the Internet and employees putting their needs above the organizations’.
While federal employees reported less inclination toward misconduct on their jobs, 86 percent of state and local government employees reported a lack of a strong ethics program in their workplace, while only 7 percent of state employees and 9 percent of local government employees said they see a truly ethical culture on the job. “The next Enron could occur within government,” ERC President Patricia Harned said in a statement.
The results of the ERC survey are unsettling, says Howard Prince, director for the Center for Ethical Leadership at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas. He agrees with ERC’s recommendations that local and state governments create stronger ethics programs.
But, Prince says the most important recommendation in the report is that governments create an ethical environment. “We know from research and from experience that even people who know what’s right, and agree with what’s right, will sometimes behave unethically if the ethical environment is unsound,” he says. “The most important thing that leaders need to do if they want to fix these kinds of problems [is to] invest in programs to teach leaders that [acting ethically is] part of their job.”
Prince says government workers must be taught the “content of ethics,” or what is the right thing to do in different situations, and how to influence others to do the right thing. “It’s not enough to just give people training on what’s right and assume that if you know what’s right you’ll do what’s right,” he says. “The people who are misbehaving, being unethical in government, in most cases know, or at least have some sense, that what they’re doing is wrong, and yet they do it.”
Many government officials and employees seem to be ill-trained on ethics, says Frank Shafroth, who teaches an ethics course at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., for senior employees of local governments around the state. Students interview elected and appointed officials and employees in their jurisdiction to ask if they are aware of the ethics rules in that jurisdiction and if they had been trained in those rules when they began their jobs. “The answer, overwhelmingly, was ‘no’ to all those things,” Shafroth says.
Shafroth co-authored “The Ethical GPS: Navigating Everyday Dilemmas,” which was printed in early March, for the Virginia Municipal League, the Virginia Association of Counties and other government associations. He says the Washington-based National League of Cities plans to adopt the guide for national use, and he hopes that it eventually will be available on an interactive Web site that will feature new ethics ordinances passed by cities and counties. “People could see examples of activities different cities around the country have taken to establish a more ethical culture,” he says.
The ERC report is available at www.ethics.org.