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Teaching Public Administration Ethics: A 20-year Public Integrity Retrospective

Teaching Public Administration Ethics:

A 20-year Public Integrity Retrospective

Richard M. Jacobs, Ph.D.

Professor of Public Administration

Villanova University

This symposium features articles on teaching public administration ethics published in Public Integrity over the past two decades.  

The centrality of this topic to the practice of public administration is disproportionate to the number of published articles about it: Only eight articles published in the journal over the past two decades addressedthe topic directly. This dearth of discourse may reflect the Friedrich-Finer debate about what best prevents unethical conduct. If the problem is internal, ethics education is needed (Friedrich, 1935); if it’s external, e.g., political superiors and laws, then training is needed (Finer, 1936). Yet this debate antedates Friedrich-Finer by more than two millennia. Aristotle (1958) called ethics “practical philosophy” and, in his estimation, professionals apply theory competently in a way that positively impacts both life and the workplace in meaningful ways.

This application of “pure” virtue in practice raises the importance of teaching professional ethics and the perennial question associated with it, namely, what’s the right thing to do and how can individuals be encouraged to do it?

What this symposium indicates about teaching ethics

The authors of the six articles included in this symposium identify what teaching public administration ethics is and should involve, that is, what ethics educators aim to achieve and how to do that. Two ideas emerge: the substance of ethics education and the mechanisms by which it is delivered.

In “Can Administrative Virtue Be Taught?: Educating the Virtuous Administrator,” Nieuwenburg (2002) examined Aristotle’s ethical realism, arguing that virtue can be taught and in a meaningful way. Yet, most ethical educators don’t teach virtue and much of what is taught lacks meaning for life and professional practice. To be effective, educators should use ethical codes to enable students to acquire the practical dispositions evincing the critical thinking skills and character traits of public administration—its virtues—exemplified, for example, in the American Society for Public Administration’s Code of Ethics and Practices (2013). Commensurate with Aristotle, educators should aim to strengthen each student’s power of will to conduct oneself virtuously by employing the students’ public service motivation. This can be achieved, it is argued, by utilizing various methods and techniques that engage students in the serious and sustained effort to integrate the cognitive, emotional, and conative components of their experience through deliberation about what virtue requires, applying it to idiosyncratic situations and circumstances, and then deriving a well-reasoned decision that, when enacted, reveals the character of a virtuous public administrator.

Individuals possess ethical “blind spots” indicating that educators should facilitate each student’s self-healing by providing a foundation in ethical theory and deliberation that challenges students to think beyond the subject-agent dichotomy. Educators should also create a classroom climate wherein students feel increasingly comfortable to engage in public discourse concerning their reflections as a propaedeutic for understanding and appreciating that ethical discourse is a primary administrative responsibility. Thus, educators encourage students to consider how they might design organizations whose members will exude the virtues which best support the organization. Success will evince itself in the classroom through the development of cognitive complexity and as that will be measured in the future through organizational efficiency as well as effectiveness in furthering an organization’s mission, purpose, and values.

Matchett (2009) argued in “Cooperative Learning, Critical Thinking, and Character: Techniques to Cultivate Ethical Deliberation,” that educators should use cooperative learning to cultivate the critical thinking skills and character traits required to deliberate effectively about ethical issues. This group work increases the likelihood that students will remember the content, inculcate the critical thinking skills necessary for deliberation, and root virtue in their character.

To this end, Matchett offers two prescriptions and applications for teaching ethics.

First: Think beyond the content of an administrative ethics course. Identify how to create a classroom climate fostering positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, the appropriate use of social skills, and group processing. Within this climate, ethics educators should challenge students to link individual success—developing the knowledge, critical thinking skills, and character traits—with the success of all other group members. Group work will then be a cooperative not competitive endeavor.

Second: Promote success by ensuring that each individual contributes to the outcomes of group learning. The kind of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) the group is expected to demonstrate are important. But, of greater salience for professional practice is each member’s contribution. Developing listening and communication skills that promote a climate of trust are critical for group success. To this end, ethics educators should assess the degree each student contributes to group learning by implementing activities that embody constructive forms of controversy and provoke uncertainty. To promote this outcome, educators should engage students in considering ethical propositions “from the inside”—making public what each student is deliberating about—as well as “from the outside”—identifying independent reasons and evidence to decide whether particular resolutions are appropriate as well as the criteria for determining the best resolution when not every value can be perfectly realized or fully achieved.

Group work yields evidence of the degree to which students individually and collectively are learning to deliberate, demonstrate critical thinking skills, and exhibit the character traits associated with the practice of public administration ethics. Students also learn how to form strong teams wherein each member contributes specific KSAs to achieve collective success. This learning will prove invaluable when the challenge confronting them is to build more ethical organizations.

Delivery mechanisms

West and Berman’s (2004) “Ethics Training in U.S. Cities: Content, Pedagogy, and Impact” offers guidelines for those who teach public administration ethics. They include its purposes, delivery mechanisms, and reinforcing lessons learned.

Purposes. The primary purposes of ethics training include: reducing the frequency of unethical conduct; reinforcing organizational culture; heightening familiarity with legal requirements; communicating and discussing ethical standards; and, how to make decisions about ethical issues. Secondary purposes include: avoiding litigation; reducing legal liability to the jurisdiction; encouraging critical thinking about ethics; and, using ethics training as a means of transforming organizational culture. Many of these purposes are reactive and defensive—aimed at eliminating misconduct—and their long-term success is debatable as the misconduct they target continues evidencing itself 15 years later.

Delivery systems. In-service training is but one element of a complete system designed to achieve an administrator’s interest in (and commitment to) ethics as well as on-the-job application and reinforcement. It consists of a series of progressive, mandatory developmental learning modules, emphasizing higher levels of awareness and problem-solving abilities either as a separate activity or integrated with other activities. It encourages active involvement and provides sufficient time for participants across the hierarchy to digest the contents. While some lecturing may be required, in-service training emphasizes experiential and competency-based learning that’s directly applicable to workplace decision-making processes. Andragogy is the preferred teaching methodology. Participants report a preference for reality-based, live instruction tailored to the needs of their organization/jurisdiction, a group size of less than thirty members, in-class assessments, and post-training materials provided while minimizing time away from the job.

Reinforcing lessons learned. Teaching ethics consists of two dimensions: Pre-service learning and in-service training. While the former was not germane to this study, the authors’ discussion concerning the latter facilitates the application of the former.

Pre-service learning should convey ethical principles, decision-making models, and the application of those principles to hone greater ethical competence. The objective is to assist students to grasp and differentiate between the ethical “high road” (ethical principles, values, and aspirations) and “low road” (relevant laws, policies, rules, and regulations) (Rohr, 1978). Furthermore, the content should help students identify the warning signs of unethical conduct, appreciate the importance of gathering facts, and learn how to deal with inadvertent ethical lapses as well as the consequences associated with ethical violations. In this way, educators assist students to develop their ability to deliberate not only for life but also as ethical leaders who are capable of providing in-service training to subordinates.

Building upon this foundation, in-service training is an implementation strategy aimed at solving ethical dilemmas as well as providing ethical leadership. In-service training should commence during the pre-employment phase and continue through new-employee initiation. The intent is to socialize prospective and newly-hired employees to appreciate the importance of ethical conduct as an essential component in future evaluations of their work. Initial training is followed by a complete system of continuous, progressive, and developmental learning to teach employees how to resolve ethical dilemmas. It requires administrators who communicate regularly with employees to clarify and strengthen the ethical expectations and procedures already established and communicated. In addition, administrators who regularly survey employees about their ethical concerns; provide an ethics hotline; audit and monitor employees regularly; and, host ethics focus groups. This support enables administrators to assess the long-range impact of ethics training. All of this assumes, of course, that pre-service learning has prepared students to fulfill these responsibilities.

What about pre-service learning? Should it be a stand-alone course or its content integrated into other courses? No definitive answer has been found but, as Plant and Ran (2009) argue in “Education for Ethics and Human Resource Management,” pre-service learning can be integrated into other courses. As evidence, the authors offer a case study wherein public administration ethics was integrated into a sequence of three Human Resource Management courses. Although students reported appreciating and learning from this approach, the absence of hard data about learning outcomes challenges the authors’ optimism. Furthermore, assuming that students acquired what the curriculum specified, did they eventually transfer it into practice? Once again, this study—and many like it over the decades—doesn’t respond to this key question. Despite these limitations, the authors offer two matters warranting further reflection.

First, the authors offer a valuable summary of the general problems associated with introducing ethics into MPA curricula, whether as a stand-alone course, integrating it into a series of courses, or both. Irrespective of approach, each assumes public administration educators are prepared and qualified to teach ethics. Where this is not the case, they note, the optimal resolution may be to construct the foundation in a standalone ethics course or to ensure that sufficient attention is directed to ethics in an introductory, required core course (p. 229). Second, the authors provide guidance about how to introduce ethics to students in programs not offering a standalone course. This resolution presents difficulties, principal among them, the shortage of faculty who possess a background in theoretical and applied ethics.

Nearly one decade later, the problems Plant and Ran (2009) identified remain unanswered, as many MPA faculty continue to wrestle with the question of whether ethics should be introduced in the curriculum and, if so, how. In 2013, NASPAA reported 42 percent of its accredited MPA programs (N=106) and 21% of its accredited universities (N=149) offering a standalone ethics course (Evans, 2018).

With few public administration faculty possessing the requisite background to teach ethics, can faculty teaching ethics in other professional disciplines also teach public administration ethics (and vice-versa)?

Wyatt-Nichol and Franks (2014) respond affirmatively in “Ethics Training in Law Enforcement Agencies,” although their study wasn’t designed to respond to the question. Instead, seeking to determine whether professional education training for law enforcement professionals reinforces the mission, increases compliance, and strengthens the ability to resolve ethical dilemmas, these outcomes parallel those of other professions as well as some aspects of ethics education advocated by other authors in this symposium.

U.S. law enforcement during the 1990s was increasingly characterized by increasing liability costs due to violations of policy, use of excessive force, and other questionable conduct. Thus, another desired outcome of ethics training included preventing further damage to the profession and its public image. Accrediting agencies also raised the standards for ethics training.

The study’s data indicated that pre-service training was limited (two to four hours of direct instruction in police academies) with even less time expended upon in-service training. Upper-echelon officers received the most training reported that ethics instruction was worthwhile and should be offered to pre-service officers to all officers, regardless of rank and throughout their careers. However, mid-career officers (five to ten years of service) were being bypassed. Lastly, even though pre-service officers prefer learning about expectations (e.g., codes, rules, regulations), they deemed as ineffective the traditional pedagogical approaches used to convey those expectations. Importantly, the data suggest that the practice of ethics (and teaching ethics) may cut across professions by differentiating terms carefully and focusing upon character development.

The authors differentiate terms carefully, specifying how ethics education, ethics instruction, and ethics training are not synonymous. “Ethics education” is a broader term subsuming the other two. The former constructs the intellectual foundation for ethical practice and, as practitioners acquire an increasing breadth and depth of professional experience, instruction, and training build upon that foundation. Again, what unites both is the teaching method: Andragogy. Thus, ethics education and its two sub-categories must emphasize self-directed learning, value the learners’ experiences, and make the materials relevant to current or future responsibilities.

The pre-service aspect of ethics education is ethics instruction, likely to transpire in a classroom or online. Ethics educators should incorporate decision-making models, critical thinking exercises, and discussions about virtue into the curriculum. They should also challenge students to envision ethical leadership as leading by example and to appreciate their responsibility to provide ethics education across the organization. Educators should do this by incorporating collaborative decision-making processes into their instruction.

The in-service aspect of ethics education is ethics training and occurs in the workplace as a routine that continuously reinforces pre-service ethics instruction as professionals apply it to the exigencies of practice. In this way, ethics education provides job-specific ethics training for all ranks and throughout careers. Then, by role-modeling ethics and integrity as well as the efforts to build more ethical cultures in the organizations, professionals build public trust and greater confidence in the organizations which they serve.

Focusing upon character development, the authors note that for ethical determinists, character is fixed, with some people possessing it and others not. In contrast, ethics education aims at developing character irrespective of its stage of development in individuals, assisting both pre-service and in-service professionals to develop ethical competence as they continuously integrate the virtues of their profession more deeply into their character. That said, and in response to ethical determinists, ethics educators do not develop ethical competence in their students; rather, they assist students to act as the formal cause in determining their personal character.

The police chiefs’ proposed resolutions parallel those offered by the public administration literature. The critical matters uniting both include: personal integrity; the negative impact misconduct has upon public trust; and the reputation of the profession, its practitioners, and public service organizations. While the authors are optimistic that ethics education can reverse these threats, subsequent data indicate those programs may not have achieved this goal, especially in communities comprised largely of minorities.

Regarding law enforcement and public administration, Wyatt-Nichol and Franks offer evidence that ethics education is similar for both professions. A conversation among law enforcement and public administration ethics educators would enrich both.

Finally, what about access to ethics education? In “Distance Learning and Ethics Education and Training,” Meine and Dunn (2009) challenge educators to look beyond the confines of traditional classrooms to envision the possibilities offered by technological advances to increase access to ethics education.

Contending that ASPA should be the primary provider of public administration ethics education, the authors describe the asynchronous programs offered by the U.S. military, law enforcement, technical training schools, and distance learning initiatives sponsored by the nation’s institutions of higher education. The military’s programs, in particular, have solved numerous logistical problems including, among others: different schedules; time zones; operational tempos; and, bricks-and-mortar schools aren’t readily available to most personnel. However, while distance learning undoubtedly allows for ease of access, the authors’ contention that it reduces costs is contradicted by recent evidence (Poulin & Straut, 2017).

What the authors identified in 2009 has expanded exponentially in the ensuing years. Furthermore, ASPA has utilized technology to provide both asynchronous and, now, synchronous training for members. By 2018, those initiatives took the form of book talks as well as online webinars and conferences. ASPA has also published twice-weekly online and monthly print editions of PA Times offering readers topical discussions, including ethics education. In retrospect, Meine and Dunn’s challenge to ASPA’s Section on Ethics (now the “Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance”) appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

Meine and Dunn have provided a context for ethics educators to look back upon the Internet’s flourishing and envision its potential to expand access to ethics education and training. ASPA could transform the landscape of teaching administrative ethics for educational, training, and professional certification purposes. Its Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance would be the logical “home” for this program.

A fundamental premise and four propositions

The contributors to this symposium concur about a fundamental premise: Those who teach public administration ethics must endeavor to educate students in virtue not about virtue.

From this premise, the end of ethics education can be derived: Public administration ethics is a complete system of continuous, progressive, and developmental learning activities that prepare practitioners who will serve (or currently do serve) in the profession to conduct themselves virtuously and build more ethical learning organizations so that subordinates will “do right things” and increase the public trust.

Between the “here” of ethics education and the “there” of virtuous practice, ethics educators integrate the content of ethics education—the knowledge, deliberative skills, and professional virtues—with group learning activities through pre-service ethics instruction and in-service ethics training. To this end, this body of literature implicitly or explicitly identifies four propositions for teaching ethics.

Proposition #1: The student is the subject. Those who teach public administration ethics focus primarily upon each student and how educators intend to provide the requisite mental formation empowering students to be the formal causes of their education in the professional virtues associated with public administration practice. Educators focus not upon the tangibles that support learning—textbooks, tests, papers, projects—but upon the climate of ethics education that’s required for students to educate themselves in virtue and virtuous practice and, then, to marshal and utilize all that supports this learning to that end.

Proposition #2: Ethics education involves two aspects: pre-service learning (ethical and administrative theory and practice) and training (applied ethical theory). While both aspects emphasize deliberation and reflection on practice and utilize andragogy as the primary methodology, ethics educators design curricula to achieve the associated, but different learning objectives associated with each aspect. Toward this end, ethics educators weave this content throughout pre-service ethics instruction and in-service ethics training.

Proposition #3: Ethics education aims at engaging students in virtuous action in operational settings. Ethics education challenges students to remember that “knowing that” and “knowing how”—important as they are for professional practice—pale by comparison to virtuous conduct. Awareness of this proposition provides ethics educators the foundation for identifying appropriate methods that will best shape a climate for pre-service instruction and in-service training. In turn, this climate will enhance the likelihood that students will educate themselves in virtue because doing so is meaningful for one’s life and profession, and because the way they conduct themselves assists in building more ethical organizations. The various means to this end include an emphasis upon individual experience as well as group learning wherein students integrate the cognitive, emotional, and conative components of thinking. The objective is for students to habituate virtue in themselves as they make more conscious and ethical decisions about their lives and workplaces.

Proposition #4: The ability to demonstrate ethical competence through ethical leadership in the workplace is the desired end of ethics education. What students learn is unified conceptually under the idea of ethical leadership, especially as it relates to how public administrators build ethical learning organizations. During pre-service instruction, students puzzle through how they might fulfill their responsibility to support in-service training as well as how to assess their organizations’ current learning orientations by formulating an integrated learning strategy for workplace ethics education (DiBella & Nevis, 1998). Providing subordinates the in-service training needed to implement this strategy successfully requires unlearning what hasn’t or doesn’t work and expanding their learning orientations to develop the capability to solve ethical dilemmas for themselves.

As this fundamental premise and four propositions suggest, ethics educators must possess a sophisticated understanding of the content of professional ethics, experience in its applications, and highly refined expertise in teaching it to adult learners. In turn, when ethics educators have provided students the opportunity to educate themselves in virtue, they will be prepared to begin learning how to provide ethical leadership in public, nonprofit, and government organizations. Deliberating about and then implementing what virtue requires in practice provides a continuous evaluation of whether virtue has truly made its home—become habitual—in their character.

This meaningful education stands in stark contrast to ethics instruction and training programs whose sole subject is the body of laws, rules, and regulations relating to the profession conveyed to students through prescriptive exercises that enact those prescriptions in rote, mindless ways. Of course, implementing this vision of public administration ethics education—even if driven down and throughout the organization—provides no guarantee that professionals will implement what they learned in the workplace.

Taken individually and collectively, the contributors to this symposium offer a vision for ethics educators to identify how they might teach ethics in a way that is meaningful for their students’ lives and profession as well as their practice of it. The propositions also frame an agenda for future research into this important topic and assessing success will require such scholarly inquiry.


American Society for Public Administration. (2013). Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: American Society for Public Administration. Retrieved from: https://www.aspanet.org/ASPADocs/ASPA%20Code%20of%20Ethics-2013%20with%20Practices.pdf

Aristotle. (1958). Nicomachean ethics (W. D. Ross, Trans.) In J. D. Kaplan (Ed.), The pocket Aristotle (pp. 158-274). New York: Washington Square Press.

DiBella, A., & Nevis, E.C. (1998). How organizations learn: An integrated strategy for building learning capability. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Evans, M.D. (2018). Gender representation in MPA ethics courses. Journal of Public Affairs Education, 24(3), 342-360. https://doi.org/10.1080/15236803.2018.1426427

Finer, H. (1936). Better government personnel. Political Science Quarterly, 57, 569-599.

Friedrich, C.J. (1935). Responsible government service under the American constitution. In C.J. Friedrich et al., Problems of the American public service (Monograph no. 7). New York: McGraw Hill.

Knowles, M.S. (1984). Andragogy in action. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Matchett, N.J. (2009). Cooperative learning, critical thinking, and character: Techniques to cultivate ethical deliberation. Public Integrity, 12(1), pp. 25-38. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2753/PIN1099-9922120102

Meine, M.F., & Dunn, T.P. (2009). Distance learning and ethics education and training: A new role for the American Society for Public Administration? Public Integrity, 12(1), 51-60. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2753/PIN1099-9922120104

Nieuwenburg, P. (2002). Can administrative virtue be taught?: Educating the virtuous administrator. Public Integrity, 5(1), 25-38. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15580989.2003.11770932

Plant, J. & Ran, B. (2009). Education for ethics and human resource management. Public Integrity, 11(3), 221-238. Retrieved online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2753/PIN1099-9922110302

Poulin, R., & Taylor-Straut, T. (2017). Distance education price and cost report. Boulder, CO: WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. Retrieved from: https://wcet.wiche.edu/initiatives/research/price-cost-distance-ed

Rohr, J.A. (1978). Ethics for bureaucrats: An essay on law and values. New York: Marcel Dekker.

West, J.P., & Berman, E.M. (2004). Ethics training in U.S. cities: Content, pedagogy, and impact. Public Integrity, 6(3), 189-206. Retrieved online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10999922.2004.11051253

Wyatt-Nichols, H., & Franks, G. (2009). Ethics training in law enforcement agencies. Public Integrity, 12(1), 39-50. Retrieved online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2753/PIN1099-9922120103

Teaching Public Administration Ethics

Article TitleAuthor(s)Journal TitleVolumeIssue
Incorporating the ASPA Code of Ethics Across the M.P.A. CurriculumJacobs, R.M. . (2014, Fall). Public Integrity16(4), 337-354
Cooperative learning, critical thinking, and character: Techniques to cultivate ethical deliberationMatchett, N.J. (2009). Public Integrity
12(1), pp. 25-38
Distance Learning and Ethics Education and TrainingMeine, M.F., & Dunn, T.P. (2009). Public Integrity12(1), 51-60
Can Administrative Virtue Be Taught?: Educating the Virtuous AdministratorNieuwenburg, P. (2002). Public Integrity5(1), 25-38
Education for Ethics and Human Resource ManagementPlant, J. & Ran, B. (2009)Public Integrity11(3), 221-238
Ethics Training in U.S. Cities : Content, Pedagogy, and ImpactWest, J.P., & Berman, E.M. (2004). Public Integrity6(3), 189-206
Ethics Training in Law Enforcement AgenciesWyatt-Nichols, H., & Franks, G. (2009). Public Integrity12(1), 39-50
Teaching and Learning Ethical Reasoning with CasesDonald C. Menzel
Public Integrity11(3), 239-250