5 Essential Ethics Lessons You Must Have in a Public Administration Role

07/13/15   It’s understood that those who serve the public trust should be held to a higher ethical standard than those in the private sector. In 1968, Hawaii opened the first state ethics commission; since then, 41 other states have followed suit, with Utah launching its state ethics commission most recently, in 2013. In fact, several states, including Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, have multiple independent ethics oversight boards for public officials.

The public expects that the officials entrusted with their tax dollars will use those dollars to promote the interests of the community in an ethical and transparent way. If you are considering a career in public administration, here are five ethical principles behind excellent public service.

The Public Interest Is Your First Priority

Image via Flickr by USDAgov_2

Image via Flickr by USDAgov_2

In allocating resources or making policy decisions, balance the interests of each constituency against the interest of the community as a whole. Involve the public in the decision-making process and respect the public’s right to transparency in government processes. Communicate regularly and clearly with community members and be accessible to them to hear their concerns. Encourage democratic participation and engagement in good governance.

Personal Integrity and Accountability Are Key

Avoid shows of partisanship in the professional sphere; a public administrator serves everyone in the community, not only those who share a particular political viewpoint. The public abhors conflicts of interest, so resist accepting gifts from those who wish to influence you, and don’t show nepotism in awarding public contracts or hiring decisions. Take ownership of your projects and programs and accept responsibility for their outcomes. Be willing to listen to legitimate questions and even criticism from community members, and respond respectfully.

Communities Demand Respect for Public Resources

People are rightly infuriated when they suspect public officials are squandering public funds or managing them irresponsibly. Enforce strict spending controls and show fiscal responsibility in contracting out public works. Be transparent with community finances, and support regular audits and investigations where appropriate. Promote a culture of sound financial management in your department or organization.

Upholding the Law and the Constitution Is Essential

If you feel local laws or regulations are counterproductive or out of sync with good public policy, you should uphold them but work within the system to seek legislative changes. Your community members must live within established laws and regulations, and they expect the same from their public officials. Show a commitment to protecting due process and the legal and constitutional rights of community members. Facilitate legal activities that show dissent and protect the rights of whistleblowers.

Leaders Promote Social Equity 

Show leadership in opposing all forms of discrimination, and promote policies that advance principles of fairness, equality, and affirmative action. Respect individual differences, both among employees in the workplace and the community members you serve. Give equal consideration to all voices in a policy debate, and be willing to accept input in decision-making processes.

Administering public resources and policy places unique ethical responsibilities on public administrators and officials. These five ethical lessons are the foundation of a successful career in the public eye.