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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Government Ethics

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics explores Government Ethics issues including campaign ethics, conflicts of interest, gifts to officials, transparency, budgeting, and other topics.


Commentary on Government Ethics

    Overview of Government Ethics

    Hana Callaghan, director of Government Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, discusses policy, process, and politics. She reviews issues such as conflicts of interest, transparency, and the duties of loyalty and care required of public servants.

    What is Government Ethics?

    By Hana Callaghan, director of Government Ethics

    Government ethics encompasses three general categories: process, policy, and politics.

    Issues in the process context are what people usually think of as government ethics. These are the unique set of duties and obligations that a person assumes when he or she enters public service. We the people are sovereign, and we delegate authority to public servants to act on our behalf. Because we do that, we trust them to act for the common good. We trust them to be good stewards of the public treasury and public resources.

    Out of that, certain duties arise. For example, there’s the duty of loyalty, which deals with conflicts of interest. The public servant has the duty to put the public's interest before his or her own personal interest. There’s the duty of fairness. This means that public servants have a duty of impartiality. They have to treat all constituents equally; they can't favor those of their party or those who voted for them or those who donated to their campaign. There’s the duty of care.  That means public servants have to act competently; they have to obey all the laws; they have to be good stewards of the public treasury.  And there's the duty of accountability.  Public servants must be transparent.  Open meeting laws and public records laws are a codification of this concept that public servants have to act in the light and not in the dark.

    In the policy arena, the ethical considerations are in substantive decision-making, such as the budgeting process. This is an area that really might reflect a city's values. For example, what if cuts have to be made? What programs get cut? What programs get funded? That is an ethical decision.

    The third element of government ethics, politics, involves the personal pursuit of running for office. Our political process is based on the ethical ideal of creating an informed electorate so ethical campaigns are ones that fulfill this function. They create political messaging that is fair, truthful, and relevant. They disclose any obligations or promises the candidate has made so that voters can truly know to whom the candidate is beholden, which can inform their decision making. They manage donor expectations and don’t lead the donor to believe that a contribution will somehow influence political decisions down the road. Finally, candidates have an ethical obligation to reduce the vitriol, to engage in public debate, not to hide from the press, to be available, to have town hall meetings, to make known what their positions are either on their website or through their spokespeople. The problem with vitriol in political discussion is that it poisons later legislative relationships, which can lead to political polarity down the road.

    This article is adapted from the video What is Government Ethics?

    Voting for Ethics: A Guide for US Voters image cap

    Voting for Ethics: A Guide for US Voters

    “Voting for Ethics” is a non-partisan, how-to guide for U.S. voters. It will help you identify the hallmarks of an ethical candidate and make a more informed decision -- whether for your local school board or the 2020 presidential election.

    Campaign Ethics: A Field Guide

    This guidebook is designed to help those managing or engaging in political campaigns do so in an ethical manner. It also serves as a valuable resource to voters, helping them identify the hallmarks of an ethical campaign.