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Exploring ethical issues in public administration

Friday, September 04, 2015 | 12:00 AM

The United States has a long tradition of dealing with ethical issues in public administration. It goes back to before the country was established and extends to today. In fact, because of many events in recent history, ethics in government is a popular topic throughout the nation and an important part of any Master of Public Affairs course of study.

Tracing ethics through US history

Every school child learns about the early settlers and the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock. John Winthrop, the Royal Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was a Puritan lawyer and leader of the Pilgrims. Before they got off the boat, Winthrop said a prayer that linked ethics to the way the he planned to administer the new colony:

We must strengthen, defend, preserve, and comfort each other. We must love one another, we must bear one another's burdens. We must look not only on our things, but also on the things of our brethren. We must rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together.

Many of the first colonists were Puritans and their religion shaped the way they viewed public administration. Their attitudes and ideas made a huge impact on the early days of US history, but they don't stop there. Their ideas continued to shape events and have a strong influence on ethical issues in public administration today.

Modern policies that reflect ethics

Public policies like The New Deal and The Great Society show that U.S. presidents and politicians still deal with ethical issues in public administration. These two policies, for example, have their roots in what John Winthrop said in his prayer at Plymouth Rock – “We must look not only on our things, but also on the things of our brethren.”

Over the last few decades, news events have put ethics in the spotlight. There have been times when U.S. public management has appeared either corrupt or inept. It seems like that almost every year at least one elected official is forced to resign. Those events shake the confidence of the people. Because of this, the public puts a greater emphasis on ethical behavior and government officials are held to a higher standard than professionals outside of government.

At the same time, government agencies at all levels – local, state, national and international – are doing more than they have ever done. For example, there are more safety and inspection programs and more regulations that agencies have to enforce. On the global level, national and international agencies are enforcing treaties and other agreements. None of these duties can be done successfully without the public trust.

Ethical pressures will increase

The roles of government and public agencies will not lessen in the future. There is no doubt that the importance of ethical issues in public administration will continue to increase. Both elected officials and professionals who make their careers in public management can expect to be held to high ethical standards.

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