The Importance of Ethics in Public Administration

As described in the preamble of the Constitution, the purpose of our government cannot be achieved without an ethical framework, making ethics a critical component of public administration. But to understand the significance of ethics in public administration, it is also important to answer fundamental questions surrounding the topic: What are ethics and what is the purpose of  having a code of ethics? What are ethical challenges in the workplace, and what can a master’s in public administration teach you about ethics in government? The answers are explored in more detail below.

What is Ethics?

Ethics are often taught at an early age. Children learn right from wrong from parents, teachers, community leaders, politicians, and entertainment and news media. Ethics permeates every facet of life—from decision-making at work to how people handle personal relationships.

The concept of “ethics” can be tricky to define. The Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI), a nonprofit that focuses on ethics and compliance best practices, defines ethics as “the study of right and wrong conduct.” ECI’s glossary offers these additional descriptions:

  • The decisions, choices, and actions (behaviors) we make that reflect and enact our values.
  • The study of what we understand to be good and right behavior and how people make those judgments.
  • A set of standards of conduct that guide decisions and actions based on duties derived from core values.

The glossary notes that ethics encompasses the following:

  • The discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.
  • Decisions, choices, and actions we make that reflect and enact our values.
  • A set of moral principles or values.
  • A theory or system of moral values.
  • A guiding philosophy.

What is a Code of Ethics?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a code of ethics as “a set of rules about good and bad behavior.” A code of ethics sets a standard for work ethics. Many organizations and governing bodies have a code of ethics to guide public administrators as they navigate ethical challenges:

While these resources serve as a guide, they do not have all the answers. Ethics in business can be much more complex than what is provided in government ethics trainings and handbooks. Still, all public administrators should familiarize themselves with their organization’s code of ethics, along with the more general resources above, to minimize risk of ethics violations.

Why Should I Study Ethics?

The study of ethics is important for any aspiring or current public administrator, particularly because ethics is imperative to each of our government’s functions as follows:

  • Establish justice: Encourages justice that is fair and equitable (e.g., fair sentencing practices).
  • Ensure peace among the people and the states: Allows for the federal government to smooth tensions between states as equitably and objectively as possible.
  • Provide for the common defense: Ensures that the protection of the United States does not come at a great moral cost (e.g., concentration camps during times of war).
  • Promote the general welfare of the public: Ensures the government does its due diligence in balancing values of equity and efficiency in delivering public welfare programs.
  • Secure the blessing of liberty for all now, and for future generations: Ensures the public’s liberties and rights are not infringed upon by other individuals, organizations, or government entities.

An ethical government can only exist when there’s an understanding of its guiding values and moral principles and how they came to be and evolved, who they belong to and who they serve, and how they are implemented through public administration.

For these reasons, the federal government requires all those entering public service to undergo ethics training. Ethics training teaches public employees how they are expected to conduct themselves daily, what they are and are not allowed to do, and how to identify and address ethical problems. The goal is that through an understanding of how to carry out their duties in an ethical manner, leaders and other public servants will serve the public interest.  

Ethics in the Workplace and Ethical Challenges

At every level of public administration, in all nonprofits and government organizations, ethical challenges are present. According to the US Office of Government Ethics (OGE), ethical challenges may fall into the following buckets:

  • Financial conflicts of interest and impartiality: For example, a government employee awarding a government contract to a business he or she owns.
  • Gifts and payments: A top official asking his or her secretary for a holiday gift.
  • Use of government position and resources: An employee using government funds to pay for a family vacation.
  • Outside employment and activities: A military official working part-time for a military contractor.
  • Post-government employment: A former politically appointed official working for a foreign government/political party after leaving the US government.

In the past decade, there are many examples of ethical failures and dilemmas in public administration. In 2012, top leaders in the Government Services Administration (GSA), an independent agency of the US government that manages and maintains government buildings and office spaces, resigned or were fired after more than $800,000 was spent for 300 federal employees to attend a resort, spa, and casino near Las Vegas during a business conference.

While the spending was a clear violation of ethics, an ethical dilemma may not be as straightforward. Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing of controversial government surveillance practices in 2013, for example, continues to stir controversy. His actions resulted in changes in government programs, but a debate continues about whether his actions should be applauded or condemned.

Other types of ethical breaches among public servants include police corruption, bribery scandals involving public figures, and political corruption.

What an MPA Can Teach You About Ethics

Earning a master’s degree in public administration is an optimal starting point both for people who are seasoned public servants looking to grow as ethical public administrators, and for those just starting a career in the field. For students in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government's online MPA program, the journey to completing this degree will cover ethics related to:

In addition to studying ethics, students will also develop core skills through a competency-based curriculum designed by UNC faculty who are committed to ethical leadership and instilling the following values to shape future leaders:

  • Accountability and transparency.
  • Efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Respect and equity.
  • Professionalism and ethical behavior.

The curriculum is focused on effective government leadership and developing ethical government administrators. Students will learn to:  

  • Analyze situations in the context of public administration history and current events.
  • Understand how to develop strategic relations across boundaries.
  • Develop their own personal model of leadership to drive excellence.
  • Design and conduct research to evaluate public issues and allocate resources.
  • Understand legal processes, identify legal issues and find basic governing law.
  • Identify, collect and interpret qualitative and quantitative data.

To measure a student’s understanding of ethical administration, the program will challenge students to identify the legal and ethical implications of social equity and diversity in the public service and analyze public service actions and options in the context of competing public service values.

For more information about the School of Government’s online MPA coursework, visit the program curriculum page. 

The goal of any public administrator—whether they work in the non-profit, government or higher education sectors—is to serve the needs of the people in those communities. A master’s degree in public administration can help provide the tools and knowledge a public servant needs to understand the importance of ethics in their day-to-day work.

UNC School of Government’s Commitment to Ethical Leadership

UNC School of Government’s mission is to improve the lives of North Carolinians by engaging in practical scholarship that helps public officials and citizens understand and improve state and local government. As the largest university-based local government training, advisory, and research organization in the United States, the School of Government offers up to 200 courses, webinars, and specialized conferences for more than 12,000 public officials each year. The University’s world-class faculty include Professor Norma Houston and Lecturer Frayda Bluestein who instruct on the topics of public law and government and offer ethics training to city and county governing board members. For more information about the University’s competency-based curriculum and commitment to ethical governance, visit the School of Government’s About page.

Citation for this content: MPA@UNC, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government's online MPA program.