Using "good leadership" alone will not be enough to create an ethical culture. It takes consistent, intentional, positive actions. Some of the actions that help government agencies build ethical cultures include setting clear expectations, helping people learn how to make ethical choices, and being willing to talk about ethical grey areas that are not covered by ethics rules and codes.
Actions for building an ethical culture
Here are some actions leaders can take to build an ethical culture in their agencies.
- Hold people accountable for exhibiting respect and civility.
- Lead based on high-level values (respect, care, service, sustainability)—not just following laws and regulations.
- Have clear expectations for ethics and demonstrate how to meet them in daily actions and decisions.
- Make ethics a regular part of decision making—not a special event or code.
- Express your commitment to ethics in big and small decisions and actions.
- Be willing to talk about "undiscussables" such as the ethical questions that people have but may be afraid to ask.
- Help people learn how to make ethical decisions when they are dealing with multiple variables.
When we consider only one or two variables, or fail to consider ethics, we may oversimplify decision making and leave ourselves at risk. The recent article "How to Build a Strong Ethical Culture at Your Agency" in Government Executive provides a case study about how to balance profits, quality, speed and ethics in daily decision making. This is important because deciding based on price alone sometimes leads to compromising our ethics, whether we are aware of it at the time or not.
Starting from where we are
Government leaders cannot afford to think about agency ethics and trustworthiness as "side issues." The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer found that global trust in government had fallen to an all-time low. This drop in trust damages relationships with constituents and communities and makes it more difficult to implement needed programs and services.
Proactive ethical culture-building actions create trust and boosts an agency's productivity and impact, but it won't happen by itself. It takes intentional and consistent effort over time.
Take the time to talk about ethical grey areas that people have been wondering about, and take action now to build an ethical culture. Your efforts will help prevent ethical problems, and you will be taking an important step in your ethical culture-building journey.