Public Service Ethics


“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”

-Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag


  • Right from Wrong – Eliminate clearly unethical options; doing the right thing
  • Right from Right – Deciding what to do when we must choose between two good things
  • Wrong from Wrong – Choosing the lesser of evils where each choice requires violation of an ethical principle

Zoning officials & staff are the nexus.

Being the Nexus Implies… Risks and Responsibilities

Morals & Ethics – what’s the difference?


Vagueness – Precision

Moral – Ethic – Law

Ethics is the practice of applying a code of conduct to day-to-day actions.  This code is based on moral principles that balance what is fair to individuals or organizations and what is right for society.

Codes of Ethics

  • Provide a basis of expectations
  • Give members of a profession way TO think when confronting issues
  • Send a message about the integrity of a profession
  • Aspirational
  • Prohibitive
  • What kind is the AICP’s?

Aspirational Codes

  • Express the core values of an organization or profession
  • Essentially voluntary
  • Enforcement is weak or non-existent

Prohibitive Codes

  • Specify prohibited behaviors
  • Typically identify conflicts of interest
  • Provide for enforcement and punishment
  • Compliance, or commitment?

Compass Setting

  • Appearance Matters
  • Business Case
  • Compliance is Critical but…
  • Defining Moments & Doing the Right Thing
  • Everything Counts


  • Public Interest
  • Objective Judgment
  • Accountability
  • Democratic Leadership
  • Respectability

Key Ideas

  • Service
  • Trusteeship
  • Integrity

Compliance is critical but it is not synonymous with being ethical. Compliance alone is not enough… commitment is also needed!

Appearance matters… it really really does!

“Appearing to do wrong while doing right is really doing wrong.”

Dennis F. Thompson
Paradoxes of Government Ethics
Public Administration Review
1992: 52 no. 3

Trustworthiness is key!

Decision-making models

  • Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
  • Rule of Universality – Act as if your action could be a universal law.
  • Consequentialism – Conduct is determined by the consequences produced; ends justify the means

Ethical Action Test

  • Is it legal?
  • Does it comply with our rules & regs?
  • Is it consistent with our organizational values?
  • Does it match our stated commitments?
  • Will I feel comfortable & guilt free if I do it?
  • Would I do it to my family & friends?
  • Would I feel okay if someone did it to me?
  • Would the most ethical person I know do it?
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