Written by: Louie Al-Hashimi


Public sector organizations face unique challenges in confronting ethical dilemmas that
pertain to public service at large. At national, state, and local levels, public organizations must navigate complex issues with a strong sense of discretion in order to competently develop policies and deliver services that are ethically sound. Of central importance to a public organization’s ability to exercise ethical discretion is the existence and stewardship of an ethics culture within that organization.

Public administrators can employ numerous measures to build and maintain a culture of ethics that equips their fellow public servants with the necessary framework for handling ethical issues. The forthcoming analysis will examine how public administrators can best develop a culture of ethics within their organizations. For the sake of analysis, ethical culture will be defined as the “aspects of the organization which serve to promote ethical behavior and inhibit misconduct” (Park and Blenkinsopp p. 522).

Tools for Public Administrators to Leverage
To start the analysis, Speers’ commentary of a piece on six local governments in England
sheds light on a multitude of tools for public leaders to promote ethics in their organizations.

These tools include setting a positive example and encouraging others to do likewise, and
encouraging civility through respectful discourse even when there are divergent ideas (Speers p.910). Additional tools consist of “setting a moral tone” where means matter as well as ends, and cultivating teamwork to enable staff to work together more easily (Speers p. 910). Furthermore, Speers notes the importance of supporting educational activities on the ethical dimensions of public service and maintaining preparedness to make fair-minded judgements on a day-to-day basis (p. 910).

This collection of tools demonstrates how there is not a “one and done” or “silver-bullet” solution to creating a culture of ethics; rather, multiple tools and rules provide leaders with more resources to draw on in order to translate ethical principles into action (Speers p. 910).

The research also indicates that there are scenarios where contentious politics hinder the effectiveness of leadership, and alternative tools, such as an engaged public and a well-functioning media, can maintain ethical accountability for practitioners through transparency and public information (Speers p. 910). An additional tool for public leaders would be surveys that gauge public opinion within a local community (Speers p. 911).

Overall, the article highlights a wide range of tools at the disposal of public leaders in local government seeking to promote ethical behavior in their organizations. Menzel expands in his book on the tools available to public managers for building organizations of integrity. Ethics training is one of the resources that the author explores. Compliance training is the dominant model that Menzel describes as being designed to regulate
employee conduct while the integrity model serves as an alternative type of training that fosters an awareness of a public service ethos and a process of moral reasoning (p. 96).

In terms of issues that hinder adoption of effective training, Menzel mentions how managers often fail to appreciate what it means to manage ethics in their organization and fail to devote time and energy enact training strategies (p. 97). To convey the importance of training in preventing unethical behavior within public organizations, Menzel notes that there is plausible evidence demonstrating a link between absence of ethical training and the occurrence of wrongdoing (p.100). Furthermore, Menzel emphasizes the value added by ethics training as proven by numerous studies conducted with municipal police, city governments, and state government (pp. 102-103).

Ethics codes are another tool that public managers can leverage in instilling a culture of
ethics within their organizations. Two ethics codes that receive considerable recognition from public managers come from the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) (Menzel p. 104). In the case of ICMA’s code, a framework is provided for enforcement where managers are held accountable for ethical violations and face consequences that affect their membership career prospects (Menzel p. 108).

Managers can use an ethics code by advising members of their organizations to adhere to such codes or even requiring subordinates to endorse a particular code, which can still lead to mixed results (Menzel pp. 110-111). Menzel notes the significance of effort and commitment by senior management in embedding an ethics code as a major factor that contributes to successfully building an organizational culture of integrity (p. 114). On the other hand, ethics codes often fail due to unrealistic expectations or excessive control in the form of frequent reporting and tracking (Menzel p. 116).

Other tools that public leaders can utilize include ethics audits, which are described as an “appraisal activity, the purpose being to determine if changes need to be made in the climate, environment, codes, and the enforcement of ethics policies” (Menzel p. 120). The scope of an ethics audit can encompass three broad focus areas in the form of cultural values, organizational governance, and legal compliance (Menzel p. 121). Conducting an ethics audit can identify gaps in policies and procedures as well as assess occupational risk in order to create appropriate accountability and transparency mechanisms (Menzel p. 123).

Human resources management can also instill a sense of ethical awareness among public employees through hiring practices that pose hypothetical scenarios to screen candidates (Menzel p. 125). Annual evaluations and required training are other avenues that human resources leaders can pursue to maintain ethical awareness (Menzel p. 126). Lastly, public employee hotlines can be developed to allow anonymous reporting of “allegations involving violations of an ethics code” (Menzel p. 127). Evidently, there are a wide range of tools at hand for public administrators to take advantage of when building a culture of ethics within their organizations.

Institutionalizing Public Service Ethics
In order for public leaders to maintain a culture of ethics, certain measures can be taken
to institutionalize such a culture within an organization. Balia et al. offer perspectives from four practitioners who served in different organizations around the world, including South Africa, England, and the Netherlands (p. 53). Values emerged as an element that practitioners agreed is essential to cultivate for the sake of institutionalizing organizational ethics.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) went as far as to say that, “Identifying core values is the first step to creating a common understanding within society of the expected behavior of public office holders” (Balia et al. p. 54). As of 2000, the most commonly cited public service core values in OECD countries consisted of impartiality, legality, integrity, transparency, efficiency, equality, responsibility, and justice (Balia et al. p. 54).

Beyond listing values in a few words, one practitioner emphasized the importance of identifying values through comprehensive processes, defining specific words designated as core values, and providing explanations to give sufficient context (Balia et al. p. 54). The group of practitioners concur that professionalism is another facet that demands attention in regards to institutionalizing public service ethics. One author notes, “the benefit of an ethics system is that it removes the ambiguity about what may or may not be regarded as professional conduct.

It will create further confidence for those aspiring to join the civil service, and it establishes the basic professional ethos that is necessary for any profession to exist” (Balia et al. p. 56). In other words, professional standards enable public servants to fulfill their duty of pursuing public interest with integrity (Balia et al. p.56). Context is an additional aspect that the practitioners expressed as a critical component of formalizing public service ethics.

Among the contextual factors that Balia et al. mention, organizational culture and leadership play important roles in framing individual decisions and behavior among public servants (57). Upper management in particular can have a detrimental effect on a public organization’s ethical culture if its leaders fail to abide by jointly decided values (Balia et al. p. 57). Lastly, the practitioners identified implementation as an imperative step for ingraining ethical values within a public organization.

Specifically, the authors reached a consensus that implementing values within an organization requires democratic development processes, long-term commitment, and careful design (Balia et al. p. 59). Other implementation efforts can include action plans for ethics processes, risk assessments, and process working groups to put organizational values into practice (Balia et al. pp. 59-60). On this note, Balia et al. also mention the importance of budgeting resources to sustain ongoing implementation efforts (p. 61). Overall, the collective perspective of these practitioners provides a compelling framework for public leaders to adopt in institutionalizing ethics within their organizations.

Ethics Programs and Organizational Culture
Ethics programs constitute a more comprehensive measure that public administrators
implement in order to build an organizational culture of ethics. Park and Blenkinsopp studied the impact of an ethics program on misconduct among Korean public service organizations. In their definition, an ethics program comprises “a set of activities, policies and procedures intended to support employees to understand and comply with the ethical standards and policies set by the organization” and misconduct refers to “behavior that violates the law or organizational ethics standards” (Park and Blenkinsopp p. 521).

The authors examine six elements of an ethics program as proposed by the Ethics Resource Center: written codes of conduct, training, mechanisms to provide ethics information, anonymous reporting channels, discipline for violations, and ethical performance evaluations (Park and Blenkinsopp p. 521). With this framework, Park and Blenkinsopp hypothesized that each ethics program element will decrease misconduct and strengthen ethical culture, while ethical culture will mediate the relationship
between ethics program elements and misconduct (p. 523).

Using data from the Korean Institute of Public Administration (KIPA), Park and
Blenkinsopp surveyed 700 public servants from South Korean civil service to gauge their
familiarity with each element of an ethics program, ethical culture, and misconduct in their organization (p. 523). Among the results, correlation analysis revealed that each program element negatively correlated with misconduct and positively correlated with ethical culture (Park and Blenkinsopp p. 525).

Furthermore, regression analysis demonstrated that all ethics program elements combined were significantly related to ethics culture, but two elements, code of conduct and anonymous reporting, were not statistically significant according to respective t-values (Park and Blenkinsopp p. 527). When ethical culture was controlled for “in order to separate the effect of ethics programmes on misconduct from that of ethical culture on misconduct,” only two elements, code of conduct and discipline, had a statistically significant impact on misconduct (Park and Blenkinsopp p. 528).

Overall, survey results indicate that some elements of ethics programs significantly decrease misconduct and increase ethical culture, while ethical culture fully mediates the relationship between ethics program elements and misconduct (Park and Blenkinsopp p. 529). This study thus sheds light on the significance of ethical culture in public organizations and how ethics programs can contribute to reducing misconduct.

Public Service Motivation, Ethical Leadership, and Ethical Behavior
Public service motivation (PSM) is another element that shapes how public service
leaders practice and encourage ethical behavior in their organizations. Wright et al. set out to study the connection between PSM, ethical leadership, and ethical conduct within the public sector (p. 648). To start, the authors mention how PSM and ethical behavior share similar underlying values such as advancing the public interest, helping others, and benefiting society (Wright et al. p. 648).

Other connections between the two concepts draw upon mutual concerns regarding social equity, fairness, and justice, as well as the importance of self-sacrifice in avoiding conflicts of interest (Wright et al. p. 649). Given these similarities, Wright et al. hypothesized that public managers with higher PSM will exhibit more ethical leadership, public managers exhibiting higher ethical leadership will have subordinates with higher PSM, and public employees with higher PSM will be more willing to report ethical violations (pp.650-651).

The authors tested these hypotheses by surveying 477 employees at different divisions in a U.S. state government agency on 108 items designed “ to assess employee perceptions about their work climate, supervisor’s leadership practices as well as work opinions, attitudes and behaviours” (Wright et al. p. 652). Survey measures consisted of a Likert-type scale for responses, items from the Ethical Leadership Questionnaire, and items gauging pro-social motivation to compare with PSM measures (Wright et al. pp. 652-653). Preliminary analysis indicated positive correlations between supervisor PSM and ethical leadership, ethical leadership and subordinate PSM, and ethical leadership and willingness to report unethical behavior, respectively (Wright et al. p. 654).

Through structural equation modeling, Wright et al. found statistical support for all three hypothesis in addition to ethical leadership having a positive relationship with subordinates’ willingness to report problems (p. 655). Among the many takeaways that can be drawn from this study, the authors emphasize that supervisors with high PSM are perceived by their employees as exhibiting ethical leadership and that employees with high PSM are more willing to practice ethical leadership by reporting ethical violations (Wright et al. p. 657).

Wright et al. also note that “ the ethical culture and practices of a public organization are improved to the degree that supervisors are promoted for their desire to perform public service in addition to their ability to perform well” (p. 658). Ultimately, the study yields compelling implications for public organizations in the sense that public service motivation functions as a critical factor that influences both ethical leadership and organizational behavior.

Kyarimpa and Garcia-Zamor offer their thoughts on the dynamics of public service ethics within the interplay of individual conscience and organizational constraints. The authors begin with a theoretical background that explains how the meaning of public service values can be vague in practice depending on “individual conscience and organizational culture, structure, and processes” (Kyarimpa and Garcia-Zamor p. 31). Public servants face dynamic environments where individuals bring respective values and perspectives that need to be synthesized with the cultural, political, and social context that they operate in (Kyarimpa and Garcia-Zamor p. 32).

Kyarimpa and Garcia-Zamor highlight how acceptable means of promoting public service ethics typically center on strengthening external controls through rules or regulations that constrain individual behavior (p. 33). Codes of conduct and ethics codes are examples of such external controls. While codes of conducts have widely received criticism for reducing ethics to compliance, ethics codes have been favored for promoting exercise of judgement and acceptance of responsibility within a given profession (Kyarimpa and Garcia-Zamor p. 33).

Rules, regulations, and ethics codes only go as far as public servants’ belief in the principles that ground such measures, which ties in to the individual conscience of public servants (Kyarimpa and Garcia-Zamor p. 34). Individual conscience reflects a person’s moral character, beliefs, and values which are influenced by a variety of sources, including family upbringing, socialization, and education to name a few (Kyarimpa and Garcia-Zamor p. 34).

Kyarimpa and Garcia-Zamor conclude by remarking how public service ethics ultimately depend on the synthesis of organizational constraints such as codes, processes, and structures with the individual conscience of public servants: if organizational influences align with an individual’s value and belief system, then chances are that ethics will be upheld (p. 37).

Discussion and Conclusion
As the aforementioned articles elucidate, there are a plethora of tangible and intangible
measures that public administrators can employ in order to build a culture of ethics within their organizations. Tangible actions that public managers can take include incorporating training, adopting ethics codes, conducting ethics audits, and implementing a range of activities, policies, and procedures under an ethics program. More intangible actions consist of leading by example, embodying core values, maintaining professional standards, and promoting public service motivation.

Findings from the articles demonstrate the need for public organizations to implement both tangible and intangible measures to build a culture of ethics that is validated externally and internally. Another common denominator within the literature is the importance of modeling from the standpoint of leaders within public organizations. Whether it be through practicing core values, demonstrating public service motivation, or holding others accountable, public leaders’ actions have an affect on their peers and subordinates who subsequently buy-in to the ethical mechanisms within an organization based on the example set by senior leadership.

With that in mind, public leaders should avoid adopting organizational controls to promote a culture of ethics without fully committing to the elaborate processes and procedures involved in establishing ethical standards. The commitment of senior leadership is critical to soliciting buying from public servants who ultimately make the individual choice to contribute to a culture of ethics or neglect the organizational constraints intended to shape their behavior.

Building a culture of ethics is key to public administrators’ ability to navigate decision making in public service at all levels. Public servants face no shortage of conundrums and an ethical culture within a given organization can make all the difference in its ability to establish and uphold ethical behavior. Administrators within public organizations can leverage a host of tools, resources, and measures to create and cultivate a culture that facilitates ethical behavior and inhibits misconduct. While there is no exact formula for building such a culture, administrators must commit to taking the necessary steps that provide fellow public servants with an ethical framework to act upon.


Balia, D., Bertok, J., Turkama, A., van Delden, S. J., & Lewis, C. W. (2007). Reality Check:
Practitioners’ Take on Institutionalizing Public Service Ethics. Public Integrity, 10(1),
53–64. https://doi.org/10.2753/PIN1099-9922100104

Kyarimpa, G. E., & Garcia-Zamor, J.-C. (2006). The Quest for Public Service Ethics: Individual Conscience and Organizational Constraints. Public Money & Management, 26(1), 31–38. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9302.2005.00498.x

Menzel, D. C. (2017). Ethics management for public and nonprofit managers: Leading and
building organizations of integrity (Third edition.). Routledge.

Park, H., & Blenkinsopp, J. (2013). The impact of ethics programmes and ethical culture on misconduct in public service organizations. The International Journal of Public Sector Management, 26(7), 520–533. ProQuest Central. https://doi.org/10.1108/ IJPSM-01-2012-0004

Speers, J. (2016). Promoting Public Service Ethics: Tools in the Toolbox: Commentary. Public Administration Review, 76(6), 909–911. https://doi.org/10.1111/puar.12677

Wright, B., Hassan, S., & Park, J. (2016). DOES A PUBLIC SERVICE ETHIC ENCOURAGE
Public Administration, 94(3), 647–663. https://doi.org/10.1111/padm.12248