Public Service Ethics: Individual and Institutional Responsibilities


James S. Bowman & Jonathan P. West

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    It takes some game and gumption, guts and grit, to craft a public service ethics book. After all, colleagues in the field have already authored fine works on the subject in the past. And yet, we felt compelled to pen this piece because there is a pressing need to readdress this vital area of study, to do something different. Why? The foremost reason, and irrespective of the merits of earlier texts, is the subject itself. Ethics—in all its exemplary and execrable, exhilarating and exhausting forms—matters. It deals with the most gripping question in life: “What is the right thing to do?” As important as it may be to “do things right,” it is essential to “do right things.” Indeed, regardless of how many things a person does in life, what will be remembered is how he or she responded to ethical challenges. The imperative nature of the topic, then, invites investigation.

    The second reason for our effort is that we believe existing books are either too short or too long, too broad or too narrow, too management centered or not management focused enough, or too abstract or not abstract enough (!). Surprisingly, their initial (or later) editions do not report recent research or bring other material up to date. But critically, most authors do not consistently engage readers—they focus on “building in” (Latin: instruere) at the expense of “drawing out” (educare). Yet learning is not simply instruction; it is also an unpredictable process of exploring and questioning, a process that draws out the best in the human mind.

    Accordingly, this work aims to capitalize on the strengths of past books while avoiding their weaknesses. It does this by reaching not simply for an ordinary compromise, but rather, following Aristotle, for a useful mean between deficiency and excess between “too much” or “too little.” In so doing, the aim is to capture reader interest by featuring in each chapter learning objectives, essential knowledge, skill-building material, telling endnotes, discussion questions, and exercises. The intent is to make the narrative user-friendly and accessible by highlighting dilemmas, challenging readers to resolve them, and enticing them to go beyond the text to discover and confront new issues. The idea is not to stuff but rather to stretch minds. In so doing, we trust that readers will contact us with their suggestions for improvement (; The ultimate goal is to contribute to student confidence as he or she confronts ethical issues in the future.

    To what extent have these ambitious objectives been achieved by the book in our hands? While only you, dear reader, can answer that question, preliminary responses to our labors are encouraging, as shown by the endorsements prior to the title page and on the back cover. We can only hope to live up to these high expectations, and invite your thoughtful comments. Indeed, truly “own” this publication by annotating these pages with your ideas, disputes, satisfactions, discomforts, experiences, comparisons, applications, and insights. Then interact with others in a live or virtual classroom to stretch your thinking about the management of ethics and ethics of management. Ask more of yourself than anyone can ever ask of you; you then will be ready for anything. The way to get the most out of this book is to get into it!

    Public Service Ethics: Individual and Institutional Responsibilities introduces readers to this personally relevant and professionally challenging field of study. No matter the topic— the necessity of ethics, intriguing human behavior experiments, provocative approaches to decision making, new theories to understand ethical actions, the role of ethics codes, whis-tleblowing incidents, corruption exposés, and the grandeur and decay of morality—there is no shortage of controversy. This book discusses these issues, explains how they arise, and suggests what can be done about them. Be advised, however, that it will not, and cannot, provide answers for every case; the study of ethics is not like a cookbook full of recipes. To paraphrase Aristotle, avoid looking for more precision in a subject matter than it will allow.

    Our two-man team—combining some 80 years of professional and academic experience (we are much too young to be that old!)—has crafted a volume that

    • assumes that readers are or will be line managers or technical experts;
    • presents a comprehensive range of topics and issues;
    • illustrates these discussions with a blend of current events from business, government, and the not-for-profit sectors; and
    • encourages students not merely to peruse the material, but also to apply it.

    As members of the American Society of Public Administration, who have widely published in the field (see About the Authors), we believe that while no one is perfect, most people care deeply about ethics, and are willing to think about basic issues when given the opportunity. To that extent, all of us are ethicists. Professionals, it follows, need not only technical and leadership competencies, but also well-honed ethical skills to effectively conduct the public's business. That belief also motivated us to write the type of text described below.

    The initial chapter—the first of three in Part I that explores the foundations of public service ethics—discusses the multiple rationales for examining ethics. Knowing why one is undertaking an activity is the first step to understanding. The second chapter probes various levels of analysis in the examination of ethics. Gaining an appreciation of multiple frames of reference is helpful in comprehending how to study the subject area. The third exploratory chapter defines values and ethics. Understanding these terms is a prerequisite to the rest of the book.

    With foundations in mind, Part II investigates approaches to ethics. These strategies emphasize individual-centered (cognitive and virtue) approaches. To gain a perspective on this material, Chapter 4 focuses on an inclusive and hierarchical theory of moral development that can be applied to individuals and organizations. It also introduces a recent contrasting theory from behavioral ethics that relies on psychological tendencies to explain human conduct. Since people do not necessarily make ethically sound choices, Chapter 5 presents a problem-solving strategy that showcases two cognitive decision-making methods: results and rule. Chapter 6, the third and final individual-premised approach to ethics, turns the discussion from results and rule cognitive philosophies to virtue theory, from “head” to “heart.”

    Chapter 7 then consolidates the three individual-centered methods to ethics into a tripartite framework—the ethics triad—that provides a comprehensive tool to analyze difficult work issues. This framework is used to examine selected cases throughout the balance of the book. The chapter also introduces the emerging field of behavioral ethics, which directly challenges the usefulness of traditional views of ethical decision making such as those found in the triad. This school of thought argues that the prescriptive character of cognitive and virtue ethics does not adequately explain how people really act in ethical situations. Based on experimental and experiential evidence, the claim is that emotion is at least as important as logic—indeed, may be the basis of rationality—in decision making.

    Part III, beginning with Chapter 8, shifts from individual cognitive (“head”) and virtue (“heart”) ethics to organization-centered (“body”) approaches. That is, while the mastery of personally focused ethics explored in Part II is necessary, it is not sufficient for understanding the full scope of ethics, as individual conduct is affected by the environment within which it occurs. The chapter scrutinizes the ethical infrastructure in organizations, and is followed by subsequent chapters dealing with corruption control and whistleblowing in institutions.

    Selected issues in public service ethics constitute Part IV of the book, with separate chapters on ethics of elected officials, organizational gaming and performance measurement, at-will employment doctrine, and a case study in open government. These discussions represent a diverse set of topics that illustrate the all-encompassing character of topic area. Chapters 11 and 12, respectively, examine behaviors of political figures and an important dimension of improper institutional conduct. Chapters 13 and 14 explore, in depth, two different issues using the ethic traid. Part V consists of the closing chapter that serves as a capstone for the text. It emphasizes that all people are ethical agents who have the choice between moral grandeur or decay, and provides guidelines for honorable action in the years ahead.

    Each chapter includes case studies drawing on actual and hypothetical events that give students the opportunity to apply the analytical frameworks they have learned. Some case studies present scenarios that are then followed by questions to consider; others are applied case studies in which we guide the reader through the application of a decision-making framework to show the thought process behind how a decision might be made. Chapters 13 and 14 are the exception, in that the entirety of the chapter is essentially a case analysis. In addition, end-of-chapter discussion questions and exercises give students further opportunity to think more deeply about ethical issues, as well as apply what they have learned.

    Welcome to public service ethics in a book whose subject will affect the future of all readers in their careers. And now for the adventure!

    James S. Bowman and Jonathan P. West

    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

    I took the one less traveled by,

    And that has made all the difference.

    —Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”


    We take pleasure in acknowledging the contributions and assistance of the anonymous referees, Desiree Davis, Shannon Frede, Bart Bastian, Paola Conte, and Kelly Stevens, and special thanks for the research assistance of Alexander Ades, Brendan Corrigan, Sophia Suarez, Marianne Arbulu, and Meredith Wright. In addition, our past students, both on campus and online, have helped us clarify thinking about ethics.

    SAGE, as well as the authors, would also like to thank the following reviewers for their time and insights:

    Daniel Feldman, John Jay College; Kate Forhan, University of Southern Maine; Richard Green, University of Utah; Mark Jendrysik, University of North Dakota; Ramona Ortega-Liston, University of Akron; Albert Price, University of Michigan-Flint; and Theodore Wachhaus, Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg Capital.

    Finally, appreciation is due to M. E. Sharpe Publishers, SAGE Publications, Taylor and Francis, and Elsevier for granting permission to adapt some of our previous work to this book.

    About the Authors

    James S. Bowman is professor of public administration at the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy, Florida State University. Noted for his work in ethics and human resource management, Dr. Bowman is author of over 100 journal articles and book chapters, as well as editor of six anthologies. He is co-author of the prize-winning Human Resource Management in Public Service: Paradoxes, Processes and Problems (4th ed., 2012) and Achieving Competencies in Public Service: The Professional Edge (2nd ed., 2010). He is editor-in-chief of Public Integrity, a journal owned by the American Society for Public Administration. A past National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration Fellow, as well as a Kellogg Foundation Fellow, he has experience in the military, civil service, and business.

    Jonathan P. West is professor and chair of political science and director of the graduate public administration program at the University of Miami. His research interests include ethics, public administration, and human resource management. He has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters as well as nine books. In addition to the two books mentioned above co-authored with Bowman and others, he has co-edited American Public Service: Radical Reform and the Merit System (Taylor & Francis, 2007) and The Ethics Edge (ICMA, 2nd ed., 2006) and co-authored American Politics and the Environment (Longman, 2002). For 15 years he has been managing editor of Public Integrity journal. He served as a captain in the U.S. Army as a management analyst in the Office of the Surgeon General.


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