By Categories: Ethics


It is a truism that the crux of administrative morality is ethical decision-making. The questions of facts and values cannot be separated from ethical decision-making. Thus, the science of administration gets integrated with the ethics of administration. And in this integrated regime, only that empirical concern is valued, which respects the normative concerns in the delivery of administrative services.

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Woodrow Wilson, “The Study of Administration” (1887), in his inaugural address averred that justice was more important than sympathy. Thus, he placed justice at the top of value-hierarchy in a governance system. Paradoxically, there has been a lot of discussion on the formallegal aspects of administrative law since then, but very little analysis has been made of the philosophical dimension of administrative justice.

The other two issues of ethical decision-making, viz. fairness and objectivity are, in fact, integral components of administrative justice. When administrators are true to their profession, they are expected to be impartial and fair and not get influenced by nepotism, favoritism and greed while making decisions of governance.

Objectivity should not be misconstrued as a mechanical and rigid adherence to laws and rules. From the decision-making angle, it has undoubtedly wider ramifications encompassing a set of positive orientations. Currently, the notion of ethics has expanded itself to involve all major realms of human existence

Let us attempt to outline certain salient aspects of ethics in public administration. Broadly, they could be summarised as following maxims:

  • Maxim of Legality and Rationality: An administrator will follow the law and rules that are framed to govern and guide various categories of policies and decisions.
  • Maxim of Responsibility and Accountability: An administrator would not hesitate to accept responsibility for his decision and actions. He would hold himself morally responsible for his actions and for the use of his discretion while making decisions. Moreover, he would be willing to be held accountable to higher authorities of governance and even to the people who are the ultimate beneficiaries of his decisions and actions.
  • Maxim of Work Commitment: An administrator would be committed to his duties and perform his work with involvement, intelligence and dexterity. As Swami Vivekananda observed: “Every duty is holy and devotion to duty is the highest form of worship.” This would also entail a respect for time, punctuality and fulfillment of promises made. Work is considered not as a burden but as an opportunity to serve and constructively contribute to society.
  • Maxim of Excellence: An administrator would ensure the highest standards of quality in administrative decisions and action and would not compromise with standards because of convenience or complacency. In a competitive international environment, an administrative system should faithfully adhere to the requisites of Total Quality Management.
  • Maxim of Fusion: An administrator would rationally bring about a fusion of individual, organisational and social goals to help evolve unison of ideals and imbibe in his behaviour a commitment to such a fusion. In situation of conflicting goals, a concern for ethics should govern the choices made.
  • Maxim of Responsiveness and Resilience: An administrator would respond effectively to the demands and challenges from the external as well as internal environment. He would adapt to environmental transformation and yet sustain the ethical norms of conduct. In situations of deviation from the prescribed ethical norms, the administrative system would show resilience and bounce back into the accepted ethical mould at the earliest opportunity.
  • Maxim of Utilitarianism: While making and implementing policies and decisions, an administrator will ensure that these lead to the greatest good (happiness, benefits) of the greatest number.
  • Maxim of Compassion: An administrator, without violating the prescribed laws and rules, would demonstrate compassion for the poor, the disabled and the weak while using his discretion in making decisions. At least, he would not grant any benefits to the stronger section of society only because they are strong and would not deny the due consideration to the weak, despite their weakness.
  • Maxim of National Interest: Though universalistic in orientation and liberal in outlook, a civil servant, while performing his duties, would keep in view the impact of his action on his nation’s strength and prestige. The Japanese, the Koreans, the Germans and the Chinese citizens (including civil servants), while performing their official roles, have at the back of their mind a concern and respect for their nation. This automatically raises the level of service rendered and the products delivered.
  • Maxim of Justice: Those responsible for formulation and execution of policies and decisions of governance would ensure that respect is shown to the principles of equality, equity, fairness, impartiality and objectivity and no special favours are doled out on the criteria of status, position, power, gender, class, caste or wealth
  • Maxim of Transparency: An administrator will make decisions and implement them in a transparent manner so that those affected by the decisions and those who wish to evaluate their rationale, will be able to understand the reasons behind such decisions and the sources of information on which these decisions were made.
  • Maxim of Integrity: An administrator would undertake an administrative action on the basis of honesty and not use his power, position and discretion to serve his personal interest and the illegitimate interests of other individuals or groups

There could be many more tenets added to the above catalogue of maxims of morality in administration. However, the overall objective is to ensure ‘Good Governance’ with a prime concern for ethical principles, practices, orientations and behaviour. There are no dogmas involved in defining administrative ethics. The chief concern while doing so is the positive consequence of administrative action and not just ostensibly rational modes of administrative processes.


The concept of ethics has been a latecomer in the realm of public administration. For too long, doing one’s duty well was considered to be an equivalent of bureaucratic ethics. Interestingly, in the United States, the original city managers’ and federal code of ethics placed notable stress on efficiency as ethical concept.

In the early 20th century, the perspective began to change. In 1924, the International City/Country Management Association adopted the public sector’s first code of ethics that reflected anti-corruption and anti-politics facets of the municipal reforms movement.

In 1958, the US Congress imposed a code of ethics on the Federal Government and in 1978, founded the Office of Government Ethics as an upshot of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. In 1992, the Office of Government Ethics released the Federal Government’s first comprehensive set of standards of ethical conduct, comprising standards pertaining to gifts, conflicts of financial interest, impartiality, misuse of office, seeking outside employment, and outside activities.

Almost all the American states have also promulgated their respective codes of ethics, though compared to the federal initiative, they are less comprehensive.

Today, codes of ethics, ethics boards, and ethics training have been accepted as integral aspects of public administration in the U.S. The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) had adopted in 1984 a Code of Ethics for its members (comprising intellectuals as well as practicing administrators). It was revised in 1994. Certain salient points of the ASPA’s Code of Ethics are as follows:

  • Exercise of discretionary authority to promote public interest
  • Recognition and support to the public’s right to know the public business
  • Exercise of compassion, benevolence, fairness and optimism
  • Prevention of all forms of mismanagement of public funds by establishing and maintaining strong fiscal and management controls, by supporting audits and investigative activities
  • Protection of Constitutional principles of equality, fairness, representativeness, responsiveness and due process in protecting citizens’ rights
  • Maintenance of truthfulness and honesty and not to compromise them for advancement, honour, or personal gain • Guarding zealously against conflict of interest or its appearance: e.g. nepotism, improper outside employment, misuse of public resources or the acceptance of gifts
  • Establishment of procedures that promote ethical behaviour and hold individuals and organisations accountable for their conduct

There are several other `commitments’ that form a part of the ASPA’s Code of Ethics. The document can serve as a model for various public sector organisations in India and other countries.


An important dimension of ethics in public administration is work ethics. It represents a commitment to the fulfillment of one’s official responsibilities with a spirit of dedication, involvement and sincerity. It also implies that a government functionary would love his work and not treat it as a burden or a load.

And that efficiency, productivity and punctuality will be the hallmark of his administrative behaviour. Efficiency has been a constant concern of administrative analysis and good governance. The notion, transcending the Classical School, has permeated the New Public Management philosophy.

Efficiency implies doing one’s best in one’s job, with a concern for maximum possible utilisation of human, material and financial resources and even for time to achieve the prescribed and desired objectives .

Let us take a fresh look at the notion of efficiency. Can we treat efficiency as `ethics’? Truly yes, for a genuinely efficient person has a regard for the higher goals of governance, including public welfare and he devotes himself to the expeditious achievement of those goals. Thus, an `efficient person is also an ethical person. He or she possesses administrative morality that is essentially rooted in a conviction in the desirability of ethical conduct.

Here, we are not equating efficiency with mechanical productivity but with higher levels of performance that juxtaposes the ideal with the applied facets of organisational functions. This raises another question.

Why is that the quality of services and goods produced by the government organisations relatively poorer than normally observed in nongovernmental sector? Government schools, government dispensaries and government offices provide an unsatisfactory look and render dissatisfactory services. In fact, the overall work culture in public systems in India is relatively lower than that prevailing in the public sector and that existing in the government systems in most developing countries.

Even when we compare India with China, South Korea and Japan, we have staggeringly low per capita productivity. The answer might lie in systemic flaws – poor infrastructure, sloppy monitoring, lackluster control and evaluation and almost an absence of reward and punishment system.

Yet, the major factor behind the poor quality of output of public systems is the carelessness and callousness on the part of government functionaries. Most of them do not have a feeling of `one-ness’ with their organisation and their job.

They do not put in their best in their work and are halfheartedly involved in their duties. Resultantly, there are unrealistic policies, irrational decisions, erratic changes in government systems and an indifference towards the beneficiaries of the system. All this may not be illegal, yet it is grossly immoral. In rendering public service, sometimes even being amoral is being immoral.

Once we agree that work ethics is important to organisational morality and once we accept that sound time management and a respect for punctuality and promptness (as against procrastination) in work disposal is a valued attribute, we should device strategies for improving work ethics in developing countries including India.

A few corrective steps may be considered in this context. There should be prescribed specific norms of productivity and work performance for organisational units and even individuals. A comprehensive and inclusive performance appraisal system should be adopted.

This would be feasible only if job is descriptive and role and responsibilities of each position are specified. There should be maximum delegation of powers at every level with a concurrent system of effective monitoring and work audit.

Punctuality and promptness in administrative affairs must be valued and along with the quality of work performed; these should become the criteria for reward and punishment in organisations. The seniors should lead by setting an ethical example.

They should motivate their juniors to take initiative, and responsibility, and also be enterprising and efficient. Conversely, those suffering from indolence, indecision, inefficiency and dishonesty should be punished. This would set an example and create a healthy work culture for those who conduct the public business. The same spirit pervades the pronouncements of public leaders at the helm of governments in most nations.

Thus, ethics has regained its status as a distinctive characteristic of Good Governance. The trend is not likely to reverse in the foreseeable future. Hopefully, there would be a greater concern for quality in public affairs and public service, and the movement of Total Quality Management (TQM) will pervade the governmental functioning and influence the performance of governmental structure. Ethics means good service and this maxim applies most to public systems

Public administration is designed to serve `public’. By its very nature, it ought to be people-oriented and even people-centred. While bureaucracies are expected to be guided by laws and rules, it is not necessary to make them mechanistically rulecentric.

Public administrative organisations are human organisations and they ought to be humane in their policies, decisions, orientation and behaviour. Being responsive to people’s needs enjoins upon civil servants to be responsive to their psychological needs of being cared for, nurtured, and helped. It is in this context that administrators ought to evolve and demonstrate a higher level of emotional as well as spiritual intelligence that would make them empathetic as well sympathetic to feelings of a common person.

Despite all the visible prosperity in India, one cannot ignore massive and deplorable poverty in the country. As a long as there is a single poor person in this country, the moral responsibility of administration remains to help him. But the larger issue of empathy and compassion is not confined to demonstrating positive behaviour towards the less-privileged sections of society. .

It transcends this orientation. In fact, anyone having access to administration should be meted out a treatment of respect. This treatment should not be just ostensible, but real, authentic and profound. Ethical behaviour emanates from a pure and kind heart, and therefore, those who are in the business of serving people should train their heart to be sensitive and compassionate.

Compassion involves a sense of empathy. It does not end with pity. It invokes sensibilities to understand and even feel the pain of others and motivates one to be truly helpful in overcoming this pain. Hence, administrative ethics in public affairs envisages that the domain of feelings and the universe of rationality should find a happy blending in thought as well as actions of civil servants.

A positive and healthy approach to services entails courtesy and politeness in administrative behaviour, a desire to help resolve their problems, and satisfy them even when, extra help cannot be rendered and matters have to be disposed off in accordance with the legal and formal requirements of the system. A citizen-centric administration would be strengthened through such an attitude.

Two areas where administrators ought to show an attentive and caring attitude is to provide correct and useful information to clients when they need it and to redress satisfactorily the citizens’ grievances. Even when a grievance cannot be redressed, at least a citizen needs be given an explanation as to why it cannot it be redressed. What is important is a positive approach in dealing with people and being helpful to them, and not avoiding them or considering them as burdensome. Ethics entails a respectful attitude to the citizens.

To be Continued…

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