Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

What Would a Real Ethics Refresher Course Look Like?

by Judy Nadler

The recent proposal by House Speaker Dennis Hastert that congressmembers attend ethics training and the White House mandate last month that all staff members take an ethics "refresher course" are typical reactions of organizations faced with negative publicity due to ethics scandals. I call it "drive-by ethics." These one-hour trainings, to be conducted by the White House counsel's office, will cover general ethics rules and will not solve the ethics problems in the White House, in Congress, or in any other governmental organization.

Ethics trainings are neither a "flu shot" to prevent problems nor an "antibiotic" to cure ethics problems. No amount of training will be effective unless there is first a culture of ethics upon which an ethical organization is structured. And with this training coming from a legal perspective, employees will not realize that the law is the floor, not the ceiling, in ethics.

Ethics requires leadership from the top. Leadership from the highest administrators must include a commitment to make the time, budget the money, and plan a comprehensive program. The implementation of the program must include strategies for making ethics an integral part of the organization, and should include ongoing assessment and an annual re-adoption of whatever principles the organization adopts. The "ethics education" must go beyond the staff, and should include contractors, vendors, and others involved with government.

Because the public trust is at stake, ethics should be the highest priority for this administration. What happens when people behave unethically? The public becomes cynical and suspicious, employee morale suffers, and confidence in government is shattered. To combat this cynicism, the administration is going to have to exhibit the old-fashioned virtues of honesty, respect, integrity, professionalism, accountability, fairness, competence, and responsibility.

My colleague Steve Johnson, the director of character education at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, likes to say that responsibility requires action. In the curriculum he developed for K-12 children, he defines responsibility as "Doing what I should do, doing what I said I would do, what is best for everybody; especially doing the one thing I should be doing right now." The White House and congressional "ethics refresher courses" might start right there.

Judy Nadler is senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. An earlier version of this article appeared in the San Jose Mercury News Nov. 10, 2005. Posted Dec. 8, 2005

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