04/03/2011 06:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2011

Needed: A New Approach to Ethics in Government

Decrying years of unethical behavior in government, President Obama promised a more forceful emphasis on ethics. During his first week in office, he ordered tightened restrictions on lobbying, a salary freeze for key White House staff, and increased transparency in government. Two years later, it seems to most Americans not quite enough.

Barely a quarter of Americans (25 percent) say they can trust the government in Washington "to do the right thing most or almost all of the time" (CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll. Sept. 1-2, 2010). Among federal workers, over 44 percent either disagree or are not sure that "my organization's leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity" (Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, 2010).

Like the economy, it took years to get into this mess. So it may take years to get out of it. New ethics rules will not by themselves restore trust in the integrity of public officials. If they could, three decades of work by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) would have already achieved this. OGE has worked with Executive Branch officials to eliminate conflicts of interest, ensure accurate financial disclosure, and provide guidance on a wide range of ethics topics. Yet all the rules in the world did not stop some workers at the Minerals Management Service from accepting gifts and compromising their independence in inspecting oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some of this is human nature. Despite the best of safeguards, bad people will do bad things. There will always be bad apples. But bad barrels should concern us too, for rules will never be enough to shape the culture in government that tolerates at best -- and fosters at worst -- the unethical behavior of individuals and groups. Even some good people do bad things in unethical environments.

When it comes to creating ethical cultures, promulgating rules to create an ethical government is like handing a color wheel to an artist and expecting a masterpiece. Tools are necessary but never sufficient to produce memorable paintings or trustworthy government. Ethical cultures demand, among those shaping them, an understanding of our Constitutional history, an attitude of awe and reverence to the obligations of public service, and skills in fostering integrity, dissent, and ethical decision-making.

Our present approach seems to focus on what not to do -- as if trustworthy government will emerge from not breaking any rules. Yet, there was no rule in 2007 to prevent FEMA lawyers from ignoring a staff recommendation to test Katrina trailers for formaldehyde. Yet, to ensure the agency didn't have to acknowledge they knew about the problem, the lawyers advised against the tests. There was no rule against suppressing internal dissent in decision making, as NASA did with both the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters -- ethical lapses that cost lives.

If we intend to foster ethics in government, we have to get people to think about what they should do, not just what they must not do. At least three steps would be a start.

First, educational programs should be required for all government workers to understand the Constitution and what their Oath of Office requires. What we have now in the Executive Branch is ethics training, required by law for one hour each year, and usually consisting of a litany of examples of what not to do. By focusing on the ethical floor, we set the bar too low and ignore the majestic heights that should frame a public service ethic. Ethics training in government is like standardized testing in schools -- it may create minimum skills but it will hardly produce an educated, ethical organization.

Second, taking the Oath of Office needs to be imbued with more meaning. In too many cases it is a hollow exercise, stuffed in between signing insurance forms and getting desk and office supplies. Those who work in government are trustees of an historic, fragile covenant with the American people, but oath taking as now practiced in government rarely imbues a sense of awe about that trusteeship.

Third, government workers need moral exemplars. The media are awash with ethical failures but seldom showcase someone who did the right thing. Almost everyone heard about Charles Graner and Lynndie England, infamous guards at Abu Ghraib, but how many heard about Joe Darby, the soldier who risked his life and career by exposing their abuses? If we expect to foster virtue in government, we need to celebrate virtuous public service.

In the spring of 1943 Army Chief of Staff George Marshall called John Hilldring, a two-star general, to his office to give him the task of organizing military governments for countries to be liberated. Years later Hilldring recalled Marshall's instructions:

"I'm turning over to you a sacred trust and I want you to bear that in mind every day and every hour you preside over this military government and civil affairs venture... we have a great asset and that is that our people, our countrymen, do not distrust us and do not fear us... This is a sacred trust that I turn over to you today...I don't want you to do anything... to damage this high regard in which the professional soldiers in the Army are held by our people, and it could happen, it could happen, Hilldring, if you don't understand what you are about."

We'll get the ethics in government we need when all our public servants -- from the Oval Office to the mail room -- truly understand what they are about.