The Role of the Government

Many believe that our government has absolutely no ethics in decision making at all. With so many government issues that are going on right now, it is clear that there is a lack of ethics being applied in the decision making. One of the reasons why many people feel that our government has no ethics is due to the lack of understanding of it. The true meaning of ethics is the study of right and wrong. In other words, “ethics is a descriptive discipline, involving the collection and interpretation of data on what people from various cultures believe, without any consideration for the appropriateness or reasonableness of those beliefs” (Ruggiero, 2008, p. 5). The laws and ethics work together to set forth guidelines by which the American people shall adhere to.

Many people of society believe that there is not a need for ethics because of the law system that is in place. They believe that the law system fully covers and protect the rights of the people. People need to understand that our laws are “not possible without ethics” (Ruggiero, 2008, p. 4). Before the law can be enacted a decision of whether an act was right or wrong needs to be made and this is where ethics comes along. All situations need to be observed so that a conclusion can be made to form a better moral perspective before a reasonable judgment can be made. Ethical decisions must be made on a daily basis in all areas to include: “Education, Media and the Arts, Sex, Government, Law, Business, Medicine, Science, and War” (Ruggiero, 2008, p. 149).

Governmental officials can play an important role in nurturing ethical conduct in American democracy. Society should have trust and confidence in the governments’ ability to protect the public interest. They are responsible for implementing and enforcing high ethical standards. The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) was established by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. It later became its’ own agency as part of the Office of Government Ethics Reauthorization Act of 1988, on 1 October 1989. This agency exercises “leadership in the executive branch to prevent conflicts of interest on the part of Government employees and to resolve those conflicts of interest that do occur.”

Our laws, regulations, and ethical principles are implemented and enforced by the government. Appointed leaders must ensure that their arguments include a quality of evidence to support the decisions that are being made. The American people expect all leaders and officials to be competent and abide by the same standards that are set for them. All undesirable behaviors or actions are to be regulated by the provisions of the ethics codes. Unbecoming actions or violations will be dealt with in accordance with the laws, policies, and regulations that are in place. “Effective codes are directed at prevention, providing guidelines for ethical behavior and eliminating opportunities for unethical practices” (1998, March, p. 5). As part of ensuring the resolution of such issues is enforced, the government officials are expected to set a higher standard by which they live.

The Executive Order 12674 (of April 12, 1989) clearly defines the objective of the Principles of Ethical Conduct by which all government officials are ordered to adhere to. Section 101, of the Executive Order 12674 (of April 12, 1989), says that the government officials are “to ensure that every citizen can have complete confidence in the integrity of the Federal Government” (1989, April, p. 1). The people of America cannot have such confidence unless their government officials are also adhering to the standards of conduct set forth for their office. The integrity, honesty, and loyalty that the government portrays will have a positive effect on the American people who are looking to them for guidance and structure.

The confidence of the American people can only be enhanced by the strength, wisdom, and respect of the leaders which are appointed above them. According to a 1997 Peter Hart/Robert Teeter poll taken for the Council for Excellence In Government, “citizens have more confidence in their local governments than in the state or federal governments” (see chart above) (1998, March, p. 14). These findings may be due to the lack of ethical standards that some leaders may possess. The government is responsible for providing leaders who are competent and portray the principles by which they are obligated to fulfill. Leaders must strive to avoid any action that would create the appearance that they are violating the law or ethical standards. In doing this they will increase the level of confidence and respect that the American people currently have towards the governments and their ability to handle any ethical issues that may be at hand in the future.

Individuals are encouraged to report any suspected cases of illegal, unethical, or immoral misconduct that may be occurring. “Internal disclosure policies/procedures (IDPP’’s) have been recommended as on e way to encourage such communication” (Barnette, T., Cochran, D., & Taylor, G., 1993, p.1). Although these policies/procedures may be in place, employees can often deal with possible repercussions such as “blacklisting, transfer, and harassment” (Bowman, J., & Elliston, F., 1998, p. 3). Such techniques can result in the possible dismissal of the individual reporting possible violations.

Reprisals are not unheard of during times when accusations are being made. Some common methods used are ostracism, demotion, and termination of employment. Other consequences that may be suffered may include divorce, stress, hardship, and even taking ones’ own life. People who try to do the right thing and are faced with this type of treatment often do not know how to deal with the possible effects and lose their dignity. Efforts to protect conscientious employees against reprisals need to be emphasized. Those with knowledge of misconduct need to provide specific facts and details concerning the incident. Appropriate actions, consistent with law and policy, can then be determined for the suspected misconduct. They must take into careful consideration whether or not the conduct is of threat to the public and society.

Many employees are not aware of the policies and laws that have been adopted to protect them from any retaliation for the employer. The Whistleblower Protection Act protects employees who call attention to violations, help with enforcement proceedings, or refuse to obey unlawful directions. This act is defined as: “The disclosure by organization members (former or current) of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organizations that may be able to effect action” or “A dissenting act of public accusation against an organization, which necessities being disloyal to that organization” (Bather, A. & Kelly, M., 2005, p. 4). These concerns can be handled either internally or externally. Most can be handled internally if they have good policies in place. If the internal system is lacking the power to resolve the reported incident, they can seek to take the report to an external agency for further investigation.

The importance of consequences and penalties for violators of laws, policies, and regulations is imperative. People tend to do things and behave in ways that are unpredictable or dangerous. To come to a fair judgment “all significant consequences must be identified-the indirect as well as the direct, the subtle as well as the obvious, the unintended as well as the intended, the delayed as well as the immediate, the emotional and intellectual as well as the physical” (Ruggiero, 2008, p. 119-120). Making quick judgments or decisions without giving a proper analysis could cause you to come to a conclusion that is not just. Without the enactment of our laws, policies, and regulations the public would become corrupt. Society, as we know it, would become more interested in what is in the best interest of the individual and not the greater good of the people as a whole. The crime rate would increase dramatically due to the fact that they would not be persecuted for their wrongdoings.

In order for our public officials to be competent in their position and able to determine how to resolve complex situations, they must first be educated and properly trained. Training is made available on the Internet through an interactive ethics training game entitled Quandaries. “California law requires that Members of the Legislature, legislative employees and registered lobbyists take an ethics training course once every two years” (1998, March). It is imperative that our public officials have an understanding of and know the laws that coincide with the important decisions they have to make.
Ethics Education Offered by California Cities and Counties |
Cities Offering Ethics Classes | Counties Offering Ethics Classes |
For elected officials – 4 | For elected officials – 3 |
For city staff – 6 | For city staff – 3 |
Cities with Ethics Handbooks – 6 | Counties with Ethics Handbooks – 1|
Source: CRB Survey Sample, 1996-97 |

Although our public officials are required such training, there are still few jurisdictions who do not offer such an opportunity to their employees or officials. “Lack of training leaves agency officials at risk of unintentionally violating ethics standards, thereby undermining the agency’s substantive work and exposing officials to bad publicity, investigation and possible prosecution” (1998, March). Making mistakes like this due to the lack of training can be frustrating to the official and they can be faced with moral dilemmas.

Moral dilemmas are “any predicament that arises from the impossibility of honoring all the moral values that deserve honoring” (Ruggiero, 2008, p. 124-125). Without the proper education of ethics or training that is related, a person cannot fully comprehend the situation at hand. People would then make decisions based on their own personal or religious beliefs, instead of the way that is more acceptable. Our leaders need to know the importance of any obligation, value, or consequence that should be considered when determining the dilemma they care dealing with.

Our leaders are faced with many dilemmas which raise the issue of ethical standards. They are entrusted to make difficult decisions with regard to the greater good of the people. Officials must consider behavior in various situations to determine the actual intent was to act ethically or unethically. When they are evaluating these dilemmas, they should “consider first whether it can be avoided altogether; in other words, whether it is a true dilemma or only an apparent one” (Ruggiero, 2008, p. 125). The decision-making process of the individuals faced with choices involving ethical issues is complex. The decisions are based on whether one alternative is of the greater good than the other or the lesser of evil. Each situation should be dealt with fairness and justice.

When addressing any issue that may or may not be an ethical situation you must use a tactful approach to give a proper analysis and make an appropriate decision. First, a person needs to study all information and details related to the issue. If there are some details that are unavailable you must consider what may have been or what the possibility may or may have not been. Secondly, you must decide what information may be relevant to the issue at hand. Considering any obligations that may be tied to the criteria can give you information that may have been overlooked. Any ideals related to the issue can help you to have a better understanding of the situation and how to handle it better. All consequences must be considered when giving a through analysis of the issue. Third, you have to come up with a possible course of action. Look at the alternatives that may have been there or alternative responses that could have been enacted in the situation. Keep an open mind to all situations so that you are not making a biased decision. Last but not least, you must decide whether or not one action is more ethical than the other. You must look at all the information, evidence, and other criteria related to the situation and decide which alternative is ethically preferable. “If two actions produce good or two produce harm, choose the one that produces the greater good or the lesser harm” (Ruggiero, 2008, p. 151). If you follow these steps every time you are faced with a dilemma you can feel assured that you have made a sound judgment and it is justifiable.

Although many of the American people believe that the government has no ethics in decision-making, they do not see the bigger picture. Our government officials are ultimately responsible for the fair and impartial resolutions to the dilemmas they are faced with on a daily basis. The government offers ethics education and training to give employees an understanding of what may or may not be an ethical act or behavior. This will enable those individuals with a more clear view of the situations they may be faced with so that they can have sound judgment when making their decisions. The laws and ethics work together to set forth guidelines by which the American people shall adhere to. Without them, society as we know it could become chaotic and without moral values. We must “keep speculating, keep examining, keep questioning” (Ruggiero, 2008, p. 147) in order to make progress in our understanding of ethics.

Barnett, T., Cochran, D. & Taylor, G. (1993, February). The Internal Disclosure Policies of Private-Sector Employers: An Initial Look at Their Relationship to Employee Whistleblowing. Journal of Business Ethics, 12 (2). Retrieved April 25, 2010, from
Bather, A. & Kelly, M. (2005). Whistleblowing: The advantages of self-regulation. (Department of Accounting Working Paper Series, Number 82). Hamilton, New Zealand: University of Waikato.
Bowman, J. & Elliston, F. (Eds.) (1998). Ethics, Government, and Public Policy: A Reference Guide. New York: Greenwood Press.
California Research Bureau, California State Library. (1998, March). Local Government Ethics Ordinances in California. Retrieved April, 2010, from
Ruggiero, V. (2008). Thinking critically about ethical issues. (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
United States Office of Government Ethics (
United States Office of Government Ethics. (1989, April) Executive Order 12674. Retrieved April 24, 2010, from