Ethics can bring back trust in government
By Sabith Khan
A recent study by Pew Research showed just 17 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing.
Let’s pause and think about what that means for the world’s oldest democracy.
Let’s also reflect on how this fact deters people — young and old — from participating in public life, voting and being active citizens.
This wasn’t always the case.
The Pew study points out, “When the National Election Study began asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. Trust in government began eroding during the 1960s, amid the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the decline continued in the 1970s with the Watergate scandal and worsening economic struggles.”
This trust was revived in the 1980s before dropping again in the 1990s, it points out.
The peak of this trust was post-9/11 but declined shortly after.
“Since 2007, the share saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has not surpassed 30 percent,” the authors said.
Why might this be the case?
We are well aware of all the documented cases of corruption, scandals and a host of other factors — both real and imagined — such as government inefficiencies and wrong spending priorities that are in the public’s eye.
At a time when the president of the United States is facing an impeachment inquiry, how does one bring back trust in government?
It is imperative that we ask how we can bring back the discourse of ethics.
A key factor that impacts public opinion is how elected officials uphold ethical values while in office.
There are several ways of thinking about this, but I will focus on one offered by the late public administration professor Dwight Waldo.
He outlined 12 ethical guidelines for public servants. I believe the following six are key to building trust in government:
- Obligation to law;
- Obligation to organizational-bureaucratic norms;
- Obligation to profession and professionalism;
- Obligation to family and friends;
- Obligation to self;
- Obligation to middle-range collectivities.
Waldo also asserted that hierarchy is an integral part of the discussion of ethics in public administration.
I agree with this to a large extent, as there is an ever-present tension between public administrators and those to whom they report. This could be an immediate boss, a politician or the public.
This pyramid structure, as Waldo defines it, makes the work more accountable and transparent, two characteristics that are supremely important in an efficient bureaucracy.
In a liberal democracy, the fact that there are tensions between a bureaucracy and political machinery or the policymaking body (legislature) is quite evident.
In this case, one has to be conscious of the obligations and responsibilities that one has as a public administrator.
In every class that I have taught in the past two years at Cal Lutheran, I am reminded of how important my students think ethics is in government.
Most recently, I heard from a student who stood up against her colleague’s favoritism in allocation of early childhood programming for an influential member in the community. I routinely hear about how my students think that everyone — especially individuals from historically oppressed groups — should get equal access to services from government.
The issue of ethics at a practical level boils down to favoritism, benefiting from a position unfairly and by mixing the personal with the professional.
When elected officials and bureaucrats are seen as dealing with the public unfairly and not upholding the stated and implicit values of an agency, this may cause people to not trust them or their agency.
There is still time for us to focus on the discourse of ethics and use this as a guiding force to judge the performance of a group of people — elected or appointed.
This may be the best antidote to our hyperpartisan political atmosphere.
• Sabith Khan is the director of the master of public policy and administration program and an assistant professor in the California Lutheran University School of Management.