ASPA Code of Ethics: To Revise or Replace…The Debate Goes On

ASPA is embarking on an interesting discussion about Ethics, specifically its Code of Ethics. Most of us believe that there should be standards or we often expect the most ethical behavior from our public servants. As a professional member association, ASPA committed to encouraging ethics within the profession. As part of that goal, ASPA members are engaging in a ‘count-counterpoint’ debate about whether the Code should be ‘revised’ or ‘replaced.’

In the first round of public debates published in the September 5 edition of PA TIMES Online, Ginny Wilson and Jeremy Plant, make sound arguments for revising and replacing the Code, respectively. While not terribly far from each other in their preference for a Code that is more flexible, the authors – who are also ASPA members, make clear that the code needs an update.

According to Wilson, who writes in favor of a replacement of the code, says:

“The ‘rewrite’ being suggested here would not entail developing a different list of ethical rules than the existing code, but would distill the existing rules into the basic underlying principle to be used as the core test of actions taken by all public servants…”

Wilson argues that the current ASPA Code of Ethics is not the most effective tool ASPA could use to increase the likelihood that members will incorporate ethical considerations as a primary factor in their professional choices. Instead, Wilson prefers a simpler and shorter Code that is easily referenced for ASPA’s multiple audiences and broadly applicable to its members.

Meanwhile, Plant invokes into the discussion a consideration for incremental change that uses the current five pillars of the Code as the foundation.

“What is needed is not a fundamental reorganization or rewriting of the code, but a significant update with incremental changes to represent important drivers of change in the environment of public administration…These numbered statements in the code form the basis for understanding the meaning of the broad principles in the practice of public administration. They provide a link between the broad ethical principles and the practice of the profession.”

Admittedly, Plant and Wilson are not deeply divided in their propositions for the ASPA Code. Their positions are helpful in igniting a discussion among ASPA members. The co-chairs of the working group, Jim Nordin and Jim Svara, note that the current discussion revolves around the content of the code and the nature of any change that might take place.  The co-chairs are curious about ASPA Membership position on:

– Should the Code be rewritten, perhaps as a short list of “principles” with a longer commentary attached?

– Or should it be changed incrementally keeping the format and most of the content of the current code with only modest revisions and additions?

Nordin and Svara are also asking ASPA members to consider that regardless of the format and delivery:

– Should the scope of the code be expanded to include, for example, standards for administrators as advisors of their superiors or their responsibilities to promote democratic governance, social equity and organizational improvement?

– Finally, should we clarify the purpose of the code and who is covered by it?

– Does it need a “preamble”?

What is your view about the strengths and weaknesses of the current code?  What would you add or revise?  

Join the conversation online through the ASPA blog, social media or PA TIMES Online.  Post your comments below, email to the co-chairs of the working group, Jim Nordin at or Jim Svara at


James Nordin, DPA, is a semi-retired practitioner, after working in the federal service for 33+ years.  He is an adjunct professor at Golden Gate University teaching budgeting and financial management.  He has a passion for social justice, equity and ethics.  He is a life member of ASPA, serves on its budget and finance committee, and is a founding member and treasurer of the ASPA Section on Democracy and Social Justice.

James Svara is Professor of Public Affairs at Arizona State University.  He is Doctoral Director, and Director of the Center for Urban Innovation. He is author of The Ethics Primer and co-editor with Norman Johnson of Justice for All:  Promoting Social Equity in Public Administration.  He is a life member of ASPA, a member of the board of the Ethics Section, and former president of the Section on Intergovernmental Management and Administration.  He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.  


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