15:18 PM

Got Ethics in Public Service?

By Diana Lucio, MPA

Ethics in the public sector has come to be an oxymoron given that many in public service have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Just go to any news media outlet, and you will quickly find yet another public servant who has been accused or indicted for fraud, violating campaign finance laws, or some other breach of their civic duty.

What is the higher standard in public service? The law or a public servant’s code of ethics? The answer is twofold. Sometimes ethics and the laws are one and the same. For example, stealing from the government is both a violation of the law and a violation of the American Society for Public Administration Code of Ethics – the Code of Ethics adopted by many organizations in the public sector (https://www.aspanet.org/ASPA/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics.aspx).

Other times, one may be violating a tenet of an ethics code, but may not necessarily be in violation of any laws. An example may be deciding not to share valuable information that may have led to a more informed decision by decision makers. (Pertains to the ASPA Code of Ethics 5 – To Fully Inform and Advise.)

Public servants are entrusted with important decisions that have far-reaching implications for the communities they serve. These decisions often times involve millions of dollars for projects such as transportation infrastructure, providing safe water, building affordable housing, and developing partnerships with private sector groups for the benefit of the community. As a result, it is critical that public servants understand the importance of having a robust code of ethics in the public sector and that they adhere to it as they carry out their day-to-day activities.

A robust code of ethics is also critical to a strong democratic system of government at every level of government as it is meant to ensure that the decisions made by public servants genuinely serve the public good. Every governmental unit should have a written Code of Ethics that is available to their employees and the public. Senior leaders should have regular discussions about their Code of Ethics to ensure that everybody understands why they must adhere to it. Imagine how uncomfortable someone will feel if she or she is informed that helping a friend get a contract from a governmental unit is unethical and against the law. This frequently happens because many individuals do not know the difference between ethics and the law, which is none.

The Public Administration Program at South Texas College includes, as part of the Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree, two courses in ethics. The program also offers a certificate degree. For more information you may contact Diana Lucio, Program Coordinator at 956-872-3422 or by email at dlucio@southtexascollege.edu.