employment activities,

Lesson 2 explained that public administrators are subject to legal requirements intended to promote the practice of ethical behavior. In addition, professional associations, such as the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA), have formal codes of ethics intended to provide guidance to public administrators for how to behave ethically. To supplement these directives, government organizations and agencies also have codes of ethics, as well as codes of conduct, to help public administrators understand the behavior expected of them as they strive to be ethical.

This lesson will take a closer look at codes of ethics, codes of conduct, training, and ethics audits, providing additional information about how they can be used as tools to encourage public administrators to behave ethically. In addition, this lesson will introduce ethics hotlines and ombudsmen, which are additional tools that can help government organizations and agencies ensure that public administrators are as ethical as possible.

Codes of Ethics and Codes of Conduct

Ethics codes come in a variety of forms and titles. You may have heard of similar concepts called principles, codes of conduct, standards, tenets, rules, canons, regulations, etc. They can be aspirational or provide a very bright line definition.


Code of ethics  refers to a written document that outlines an organization’s mission and values, explaining the ethical principles that the organization promotes based on its mission and values. It also details the standards of professional behavior that employees are expected to maintain, including how they should approach problems.


Code of conduct  refers to a written set of rules that delineates the specific types of behavior that employees are expected to practice at work. This includes specifying norms for on-the-job behavior, particularly as they pertain to each job.

It is important to note that a code of ethics

and a code of conduct are not the same thing. A code of conduct is related to the code of ethics, but it is more detailed and specific. Both codes of ethics and codes of conduct are intended to supplement legal requirements and other directives that provide written guidance for how public administrators should practice ethical behavior.

Many scholars—including Cooper (2006), and Verschoor (2007)—agree that codes of ethics and codes of conduct can be useful to help instill an ethical environment in an organization. Such codes can help restore and maintain the public’s trust in government and can help establish government’s legitimacy. They also can provide public administrators with advice and direction on ethical dilemmas and can become a source of professional identity that helps public administrators in their relationships with government stakeholders, including citizens.

Despite their usefulness, codes of ethics and codes of conduct can be problematic. For example, the codes can make relationships with government’s vendors more difficult since they often specify how contracts will be handled. This may change the contracting process, making it more restrictive.

Principles of Ethics

Since codes are often developed and implemented in response to an ethics scandal, they may have a negative tone. In addition, once the scandal has passed, the codes may be forgotten. Despite these and related issues with codes, many argue that codes can be useful and government organizations and agencies should develop and implement such codes. To be most useful, these codes should be customized to meet the needs of the particular government organization or agency.

For government organizations and agencies in the United States, codes of ethics and codes of conduct should be based on the “ 14 General Principles ” established by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE).


1. Public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws and ethical principles above private gain.

2. Employees shall not hold financial interests that conflict with the conscientious performance of duty.

3. Employees shall not engage in financial transactions using nonpublic Government information or allow the improper use of such information to further any private interest.

4. An employee shall not, except as permitted by subpart B of this part, solicit or accept any gift or other item of monetary value from any person or entity seeking official action from, doing business with, or conducting activities regulated by the employee’s agency, or whose interests may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the employee’s duties.

5. Employees shall put forth honest effort in the performance of their duties.

6. Employees shall not knowingly make unauthorized commitments or promises of any kind purporting to bind the Government.

7. Employees shall not use public office for private gain.

8. Employees shall act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual.

9. Employees shall protect and conserve Federal property and shall not use it for other than authorized activities.

10. Employees shall not engage in outside employment or activities, including seeking or negotiating for employment, that conflict with official Government duties and responsibilities.

11. Employees shall disclose waste, fraud, abuse, and corruption to appropriate authorities.

12. Employees shall satisfy in good faith their obligations as citizens, including all just financial obligations, especially those—such as Federal, State, or local taxes—that are imposed by law.

13. Employees shall adhere to all laws and regulations that provide equal opportunity for all Americans regardless of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or handicap.

14. Employees shall endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or the ethical standards set forth in this part. Whether particular circumstances create an appearance that the law or these standards have been violated shall be determined from the perspective of a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts.