Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Introduction to Government Ethics

by Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman

Sometimes it's easy to see when things go wrong in government: Elected officials take bribes; candidates lie about their opponents; city officials make important public decisions in secret meetings. Other times, the right thing is not so obvious: Should a councilmember represent the wishes of the majority, even when he or she thinks the majority is wrong? Is it acceptable for a governor to appoint a family member to his or her cabinet if the appointee is the best person for the job?

Whether the ethical issues are obvious or complicated, they are easier to address if public servants have given some thought to the kinds of dilemmas they will confront before a crisis occurs. The materials in this "primer" on government ethics are intended to provide elected officials, government workers, and ordinary citizens with an introduction to the basic questions that are likely to come up in the conduct of public business.

Each section of the primer includes definitions, a discussion of the ethical issues involved, and a description of the unavoidable ethical dilemmas that arise in government. Links are provided to cases and to selected Web sites with further information.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics also provides training on these issues. For more information, contact Hana Callaghan, senior fellow in government ethics.

Introductory Issues in Government Ethics

Whistle Blowing in the Public Sector
Conflicts of Interest
Open Meetings, Sunshine Laws, and Transparency
Campaign Ethics
Gifts and Bribes
Favoritism, Cronyism, and Nepotism
Relationships Between Elected Officials and Staff
The Personal Lives of Public Officials
Dealing Ethically With the Press

Other Materials on Government Ethics


General Resources on Ethics

A Framework for Ethical Decision Making
Thinking Ethically

New Materials

Center News