With So Many Ethics Laws, Why So Many Ethics Flaws?

03/25/2015 07:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2015

The Compilation of Federal Ethics Laws has 109 pages. There is a government-wide Office of Government Ethics and also Congressionally-mandated yearly ethics training for federal civil servants. Each agency has a Designated Agency Ethics Official. Why then did staff at the Department of Veterans Affairs falsify patient appointment wait times? Why did the IRS single out conservative groups for special scrutiny? Why did CIA Director, David Petraeus have an affair with his biographer, and why did Secret Service agents consort with call girls and drive drunk to the White House?

None of these actions was illegal, but they were all unethical. Clearly, ethics laws do not guarantee ethical behavior. Nor would passing laws making every conceivable unethical action illegal be possible or sensible. Something is wrong that legislation cannot fix.

Indeed, ethics laws -- which are certainly needed -- may be part of the problem. They send the subtle message that if it's not illegal it must be OK. They also obviate the need for ethical thinking, which gets equated with knowing the rules. We confuse knowing what not to do with deciding what one should do.

Yet, what laws proscribe are just the tip of the ethical iceberg. Lurking below the water line are thousands of daily decisions for which there can be no laws. What do I do when asked to withhold information I think senior officials or the public should see? How do I deal with a superior who is destroying morale? How do I balance competing expectations and values among organizational stakeholders? What do I do when pressured to lie? How can I spot ethical problems before they blindside me? As a leader, how do I foster integrity in my organization, including speaking truth to power?

Ethics laws can stop some illegal behavior but they cannot produce ethical individuals. Ethics laws can assure greater transparency but they cannot, by themselves, produce greater trust. That requires not just a code of laws but attention to character. Every federal worker knows the demands of his job, but how many are told the demands of honor? That word is an afterthought -- if thought of at all -- in civilian jobs. It used to be the bedrock of the military code, but cheating on missile officers proficiency exams and scandals in naval procurement point to trouble in the uniformed services as well. A just-released report by the Army War College Strategic Studies Institute (Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession) documents what is certainly also true in most civilian agencies: impossible to meet mandatory workload requirements lead officers to practice "mutually agreed deception" in which they lie about completing the tasks and their superiors silently accept what they know are lies.

Every federal worker takes an Oath of Office. Yet that oath-taking is usually a perfunctory exercise sandwiched between signing insurance forms and getting a computer password on the first day of work. It is neither imbued with Constitutional meaning nor followed with training in how to confront the kinds of ethical dilemmas inherent in government work.

Government work is for too many a job not a calling. The challenge of the technical aspects of work assignments overshadows and may hide the moral dimensions of that work. Government employees either cannot see, do not know how, or are afraid to confront the ethical dilemmas their work presents. Their leaders are often equally unskilled at best or encourage ethical shortcuts at worst. Those who should model ethical action too often punish rather than foster productive dissent.

The Office of Government Ethics focuses on making sure federal workers follow ethics laws. The Office of Personnel Management focuses on helping agencies recruit, retain, and develop the skills of those workers. Both need to expand their roles to instill a greater sense of Constitutional fidelity, an enhanced ability to think ethically not just legally, and to restore honor, duty, and character to their essential place as defining traits of government workers.

But to turn over the responsibility for improving ethical behavior to centralized agencies alone ignores the responsibility of every civil servant. Acting ethically begins on the front lines. Government workers want to do the right thing. They just need support to achieve that goal. They need to be educated in how to bring ethical thinking into their decision making. They need to recapture the fidelity to the oath that brought them into government. Until they do, ethics will too often continue to be the stuff of embarrassing headlines.