ASPA Code of Ethics – The Debate Continues at SECoPA

By Jim Svara

When members of ASPA met at the Southeastern Conference on Public Administration (SECoPA) in New Orleans, among the issues that were discussed was the ASPA Code of Ethics. ASPA has been undergoing a review of its ethics code. As a professional organization, ASPA is concerned that the Code reflects the values of its members.

The early morning session discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the current Code, with significant input from ASPA members who serve as faculty and have used the Code in their classes. Practitioners and faculty agree that the current Code is sound but not engaging.  Agreement during the forum is that the length makes the document hard to understand and obstructs efforts to develop a commitment to its provision. Those in attendance noted that the numerous tenets obscure the five principles in the code.  Rather, the principles come across more as categories than as central values and standards.

In an effort to improve understanding of the Code, there were suggestions to highlight the pledge component, which currently requires members to sign off that they understand and agree to the principles.

Eric Bergrud explained the origins of the code review effort, and I discussed the activities of the working group to date.  A copy of the current code was distributed.  Other members of ASPA leadership present for the discussion were president-elect Tom Liou and national council member Ann Hess Braga.

In response to an open-ended question about the strengths and weaknesses of the current code, two faculty members who use the code in classes and several practitioners offered similar views.  They think that the current code is sound but not engaging.  The length makes it hard to understand and obstructs efforts to develop a commitment to its provisions.

But what about enforcement? A few of the participants were concerned that the Code lacks enforcement provisions.  Consequently, some public administrators may not give it serious attention.   The observation was made, however, that codes oriented to enforcement tend to be specific and this characteristic can contradict the preference for a code that is more aspirational.

ASPA’s Code Review Working Committee has adopted two approaches to revising the code. The first is an incremental approach that retains the current format but suggests revisions in the wording of some principles and specific tenets.  The second is a principle-based code that stresses the central values and standards of the field along with a separate list of practices to promote the code.  It is the principles that would be emphasized in educational efforts and communication to the public.  Without considering the specifics in the illustrations of the two approaches, the participants in the forum all favored the principle-based approach.  They felt that the principles of public administration can be more fully developed and stand out more clearly in this approach.  The presentation is more engaging.

This is not the end of the debate. The Working Committee plans to hold a similar session at NECoPA in New York at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 29.  ASPA members are invited to join this discussion that will be led by Ann Hess Braga. Or you can also share your views by email to Jim Nordin and Jim Svara


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