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Arkansas State University

The Importance of Ethics in Public Service

Arkansas State University’s online Master of Public Administration in Public Management quickly gets to the point defining its core area of learning: “Building communities and social infrastructures through the use of clear communication and ethical and effective management techniques.” Coursework in administrative ethics explores this vital topic, ensuring graduates understand their essential role in promoting ethical behavior and conduct in public service at both the individual and organizational level.

What Does Ethics Mean?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, ethics is “the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong.” Focusing more on group conduct, calls ethics “the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.”

Merriam-Webster draws an important distinction between ethics and morals: “Morals usually connotes an element of subjective preference, while ethics tends to suggest aspects of universal fairness and the question of whether or not an action is responsible.”

Taken together, these definitions illustrate what ethics means in the context of public service, being based on morals or values judged to be universal in terms of fairness and serving the public interest. Ethical standards are intended to guide public service organizations and the individuals who run them as to behavior, decision-making and overall function.

Why Do Ethics in Public Service Matter?

It may seem common sense that public service is based in ethical conduct. The goal of public service is to advance the public good, help people and their communities and better society, right? While ethics certainly underlie these essentials of public service, they can be viewed in many ways. And the actions taken to accomplish public service goals reflect these varying interpretations.

Politicians perpetually disagree on what laws and regulations best serve the public good. Some educational leaders believe progressive, differentiated educational methods most equitably (and therefore ethically) serve diverse student groups. Yet many educators stand by traditional pedagogy and universal methodologies. Examples of contrasting interpretations of ethics in public service practices exist across the public sector.

Although people in public service generally work to improve the lives of the public, their behavior in public service is based on subjective morals and belief systems as opposed to universal, ethical principles. The purpose of ethics is to bridge the gap between these varying moral systems, ensuring that public service represents all of the public.

Importantly, trust in public services is forever being eroded by public officials and organizations acting unethically. This may take the form of an organization serving differing populations inequitably, or it may be a more overt betrayal, such as an elected official misusing public money.

Even if they’re not they are elected, public servants must be held accountable to the public. When public servants violate the public trust, they violate the public’s sense of representation, undermining the very institutions that undergird our democracy. Thus unethical behavior is antithetical to public service and the principles of democracy.

Is There an Accepted Code of Ethics that Public Administrators Follow?

Ethics is a central component of public service. But variances between organizations’ individual codes of ethics lead to inconsistencies. Many in public service leadership have pushed for a universal code of ethics.

The most widely adopted code of ethics for public administrators was published by the American Society for Public Administration in 1984 and revised in 2013. It focuses on eight core directives:

  1. Advance the public interest
  2. Uphold the Constitution and the law
  3. Promote democratic participation
  4. Strengthen social equity
  5. Fully inform and advise
  6. Demonstrate personal integrity
  7. Promote ethical organizations
  8. Advance professional excellence

ASPA members in the public sector are supposed to ensure that their operations align with this code. Further, they work to integrate these principles into the public sector, creating consistency in professionalism and restoring trust.

Ethics is an essential part of public service work and maintaining the integrity of democratic institutions. As public administrators, graduates of A-State’s online MPA play a crucial role in instilling trust and responsibility in the public sector through ethical behavior and conduct.

Learn more about Arkansas State University’s online MPA Public Management program.


PA Times: The Importance of Ethics in Public Service

ASPA: Code of Ethics Ethics

Encyclopedia Britannica: Ethics

Merriam-Webster: Ethic

Governing: The Culture of Ethics That the Public Sector Needs

GovLoop: The Five Core Values of Public Administration

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