Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Creating a Culture of Ethics in the Public Sector

by Judy Nadler

The question of ethics and public confidence is not a new one. In 1952 Adlai Stevenson, governor of Illinois said, "Public confidence in the integrity of the government is in-dispensable to faith in democracy, and when we lose faith in the system, we lose faith in everything we fight and spend for."

Ethics, the standards of behavior that tell us what we ought to do in our personal and professional lives, applies to all individuals, organizations, and society as a whole. High ethical standards are especially important in the public sector because they are key to credibility and lead to increased support for government agencies and political leaders.

Creating a culture of ethics in an organization can best be accomplished with the adoption of a values-based code of ethics. The ideal time to undertake the effort is when the individuals and the organization are unanimous in their commitment. Ethics codes cannot serve as a "flu shot" to prevent a problem, nor can the codes be used as an "antibiotic" to cure an ethics problem. Once established, the code must apply to everyone including elected and appointed officials, professional staff, and commissioners, as well as volunteers, vendors, and contractors.

Case study
A major goal of an ethics program is to increase awareness of ethics and values in the workplace. An example of creating a culture of ethics can be found in the development of a code of ethics and values undertaken by the city of Santa Clara, Calif.

Once the city council endorsed the concept, a committee of stakeholders worked with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics to develop a list of 70 values. They then consulted with groups from all sectors of the city to determine those values they considered critical as standards of conduct. These became the foundation for the code, which was adopted and has been implemented across city government.

As Santa Clara's ethics consultant Thomas Shanks, SCU associate professor of communication, explained, "Having in writing a clear definition of the values and ethical considerations that are important to the city helps people maintain the highest level of professional and personal conduct."

The simple adoption of a code will not ensure success. There are five keys to building an ethical organization:

1. Leadership: Public policy makers and top administrators call for ethics as a priority and demonstrate that in word and deed.
2. Commitment: All involved make the time, budget the money, plan the program.
3. Collaboration: All the stakeholders work to develop consensus and design the program.
4. Implementation: The program includes a strategy for making ethics an integral part of the organization.
5. Reflection and Renewal: Ongoing assessment includes annual re-adoption of the code and exploration of ways to communicate to new employees, vendors, residents, and members of the media.

Judy Nadler is senior fellow in government ethics and the former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif. These comments are excerpted from remarks she made at a leadership and ethics seminar at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.


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