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,
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