Ethical Responsibilities as a Public Leader

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Ethical behavior dictates that public sector leaders act in a way that best serves the public interest.

In many ways, leading a public entity is much like leading any other organization. The high visibility and unique responsibilities of public positions, however, bring some special challenges. Some of these challenges fall within the area of ethics, which can be tricky to navigate for any leader, but especially so for those in the public eye. An online master’s in public administration program, such as Ohio University’s online MPA, can provide the skills and background needed to navigate the difficult but crucial landscape of ethics in public administration.

Ethical Challenges

What makes ethical responsibilities so tricky in the public sector? The primary complicating factor is the leader’s position as a public servant. Government employees and administrators are entrusted with public resources. Proper ethical behavior dictates that all public sector workers, and particularly leaders, act in a way that best serves the interests of the public. Informed constituents are well aware of this mandate and will watch carefully to make sure the public interest is served.

An article written by Sonia Haq notes that the path to this goal is not always clear cut. “Public servants have to exercise administrative discretion while performing their duties. Public trust in the government depends on the manner through which these duties are carried out,” she explains. “Therefore, it is crucial to maintain ethical standards in the implementation of government functions, [and] leadership can have a considerable effect on the enhancement of overall ethics in the public service.”

Another issue for public servants, according to George J. Gordon and Michael E. Milakovich, authors of “Public Administration in America,” is the general perception (or, at the very least, the joke) that government employees are lazy and corrupt. To combat this stereotype, public leaders must be models of ethical behavior at all times and hold themselves to even higher standards than leaders in the private sector.

Ethical Guidelines

The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) was established in 1984 with the mission of advancing the science, art, and practice of public administration. As part of this effort, ASPA seeks to increase awareness of and commitment to ethical principles and standards among all public service workers. The organization’s Code of Ethics lists eight-core duties of the public leader:

  • Advance public interest. Promote the interests of the public and put service to the public above service to oneself.
  • Uphold the Constitution and the law. Respect and support government constitutions and laws while seeking to improve laws and policies to promote the public good.
  • Promote democratic participation. Inform the public and encourage active engagement in governance. Be open, transparent, and responsive, and respect and assist all persons in their dealings with public organizations.
  • Strengthen social equity. Treat all persons with fairness, justice, and equality, and respect individual differences, rights, and freedoms. Promote affirmative action and other initiatives to reduce unfairness, injustice, and inequality in society.
  • Fully inform and advise. Provide accurate, honest, comprehensive, and timely information and advice to elected and appointed officials and governing board members, and to staff members in your organization.
  • Demonstrate personal integrity. Adhere to the highest standards of conduct to inspire public confidence and trust in public service.
  • Promote ethical organizations. Strive to attain the highest standards of ethics, stewardship, and public service in organizations that serve the public.
  • Advance professional excellence. Strengthen personal capabilities to act competently and ethically and encourage the professional development of others.

The Leader’s Impact

Ethics in public administration obviously helps an organization to avoid scandals, legal issues and general perception problems. Beyond that, though, ethical leaders have a huge impact on a public organization’s internal culture and effectiveness. In a recent study published in Public Administration Review, authors Shahidul Hassan, Bradley E. Wright, and Gary Yukl identify three internal benefits of ethical public leadership:

  • Willingness to report ethical issues. “Ethical leaders can create a safe organizational climate in which employees feel comfortable discussing ethical issues and reporting ethical problems without fear of retaliation,” the authors report. When employees feel this way, potential ethics-related problems can be identified and eliminated before they reach the crisis level.
  • Increased organizational commitment. Ethical leaders have a proven positive effect on employees’ work satisfaction and commitment to the organization. This satisfaction is linked to decreased turnover, improved job performance and enhanced organizational citizenship.
  • Reduced absenteeism. By increasing employees’ commitment, ethical leaders also reduce absenteeism stemming from stress, conflict and general apathy. Reduced absenteeism leads to better organizational productivity and a better work environment for all employees.

Benefits for All

Ethical leadership is not just good for a public organization. It is also good for the leader, who benefits from having a smoothly running and effective operation that accomplishes its goals and mandates. By learning in advance how to avoid ethical issues whenever possible, and how to manage them correctly if they do arise, public leaders can prepare themselves to handle any eventuality with confidence, grace and success.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program

Ohio University’s online MPA program is dedicated to preparing professionals for a career in public administration. Through the university’s prestigious Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, students learn how to master ethical responsibilities and challenges through targeted public administration classes while also building skills in policy, finance, leadership, business, management, and communications. The school occupies the No. 12 spot in the SR Education Group’s 2019 Best Online Colleges Offering MPA Programs ranking

The program, which is 100% online, offers three concentrations: Public Leadership and Management, Non-Profit Management, or State and Local Government Management. Students can finish their degree programs in as few as two years. .


Recommended Reading:

Public Policy vs. Public Administration: How Do Public Organizations Get Things Done?
Benefits of Earning an Online MPA Degree
Top 3 Reasons to Consider a Career in Public Administration
A Day in the Life of a Public Administrator


Procedia, Ethics and leadership skills in the public service
American Society for Public Administration, Code of Ethics 
BizFluent, What Are Public Administration Ethics?
Public Administration Review, Does Ethical Leadership Matter in Government? Effects on Organizational Commitment, Absenteeism, and Willingness to Report Ethical Problems