Ethics in Public Administration: Are We Teaching What Can’t be Taught?

CSC researcher Celia Lee makes a case for the systematic cultivation of ethical thinking and moral development in public administration.

Date Posted

15 Jun 2014


Issue 13, 14 May 2014


The elimination of corruption has been at the top of the government agenda, and a strategic tenet of governance in Singapore1 since its independence. Singapore’s stringent and comprehensive anti-corruption framework, highly regarded worldwide, has paid off: it has been ranked as the least corrupt of the 13 Asian Countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, and is consistently among the top five least corrupt countries.2

Unfortunately, recent cases involving senior civil service officers and the misuse of public funds3 have led to fresh concerns over the long-cherished integrity of the Public Service. Were these failures of procedure and administrative compliance, or the outcome of a more fundamental cultural change? Some have even theorised that the advent of New Public Management since the 1980s, which led to a paradigm shift from the traditional bureaucratic form of government towards entrepreneurial government,4 may have created new tensions between private sector values and the traditional roles, responsibilities and standards in the public sector.5 Could these new conditions have prompted ethical challenges in public administration?6 Are there ways in which the ethical foundation of public administration can be reinforced to help preserve the integrity of public service, and address mounting calls for greater public accountability?

Ethics Management in the Singapore Public Service

Like many developed countries, the Singapore Civil Service has largely adopted a compliance-based approach to ethics management: it lays down a set of principles — through its service-wide Instruction Manual (IM) — that guides the conduct of civil servants and establishes internal control procedures on financial control, procurement, staff matters, asset management and other matters. The IM also empowers central agencies to perform compliance checks and audits.

New and in-service officers are given many opportunities, through extensive induction programmes and other training to be familiar with the appropriate procedures pertaining to their work, although such courses tend to focus on the application of prescribed guidelines and procedures.

Ethics is covered in key milestone programmes1 designed for managers and those being groomed for leadership positions — these segments encompass lectures, story-telling and vignette discussions on a variety of contexts, but do not do not necessarily address issues of moral character and ethical judgement in specific dilemmas, e.g. in procurement. There may be room to consider including ethics education in specific domain areas such as procurement, HR management and public engagement, all of which can present quite different ethical challenges.

Read More

Ethics Management: The Low and High Roads

The literature offers two broad approaches to the systematic management of ethics in public sector organisations: compliance-based and integrity-based,7-9 also referred to as the low-road and high-road approaches respectively.

The compliance or low-road approach emphasises the importance of external controls on the behaviour of civil servants. Formal and detailed rules and procedures are formulated to guide the decision-making process so that “the individual ethical choice is limited to choosing to follow the rules (ethical thing to do) or to violate them by commission or omission (unethical acts)”.10 Instruments typical to this approach include legislation, codes of conduct and ethics, extensive control mechanisms, and centralised control institutions with extensive powers.11

The integrity or high-road approach focuses on internal self-control exercised by individual civil servants, and is based on two components: moral judgement and moral character. Hejka-Ekins12 suggests that the moral judgement of an individual civil servant can be strengthened by cultivating the necessary values and norms, as well as by developing the skills in ethical decision-making needed to apply those values in daily work situations. Moral character, defined as the intrinsic will to act upon judgements reached through ethical decision-making,12 could be stimulated and improved through interactive training sessions, workshops and individual coaching.11

While these two approaches may seem to belong to opposite poles of management, they need not contradict each other, and in practice best ought to be used in combination, complementing and reinforcing desired behaviours.13

Critical Goals and Desired Outcomes for Ethics Training

The Walton, Sterns and Crespy Framework1 sets out three critical goals and three desired learning outcomes in the teaching of ethics.

Read More

Can Ethics Be Taught?

Ethical decision-making and moral development have long been central themes in the exploration of administrative ethics.14, 15 While morality is often associated with personal beliefs and values (prompting some contention about which values ought to be taught through formal curricula), Kohlberg16 argues that moral development is a process of maturation that arises from thinking about moral issues. Scholars such as Churchill also make a useful distinction between “morals” and “ethics” — he defines “morals as the behaviours of a human and ethics as a systematic rational reflection upon that behaviour.”17

If ethics can be regarded as a form of critical thinking about moral dilemmas, then it can plausibly be taught. Ethical teaching would therefore be the means by which to cultivate “a method of moral reasoning through complex ethical issues ... the primary function is to teach ethical systems of analysis, not moral standards of behaviour.”18

Indeed, there is general scholarly consensus19 that ethics training should be an important and integrated part of the training of civil servants, particularly to develop in leaders an understanding of ethics and a moral reasoning that demonstrates stability, empathy and integrity. Research interest in ethical decision-making and moral development, particularly in the context of officeholders and corporate whistleblowers, has grown in recent years.20

Approaches to Ethical Training and Moral Development

Approaches to ethical teaching vary widely across institutions that feature it,21 and there is no clear consensus in the literature on which is the most effective.

Live instruction is a common approach: “reality-based and practical, involving hypothetical scenarios, case materials, or role-plays or short exercises — methods consistent with most descriptions of best training practices”.22 Among the more frequently used methods are small-group discussions, case studies, research papers and lectures.

In the teaching of business ethics, case studies have been recognised as a promising pedagogical tool to “build a halfway house between abstract concepts and real life experience”.23 Case studies provide real decision scenarios in which students apply moral values and principles, explore conflicting dilemmas and subsequently move from doctrine to judgement.24,25 Cases may also illustrate the complex and ambiguous information and myriad of stakeholder pressures that are part of the decision-making environment.


An important aspect of ethics education in our public administration is communicating how the standards and instructions inherent in the Code of Conduct and Instruction Manuals should be applied in real-life workplaces. Since last year, the Civil Service College (CSC), in collaboration with lead agencies such as the Public Service Division and the Ministry of Finance, has launched numerous initiatives to support ethics education in the Singapore public sector. For example, easy-to-use handbooks on procurement and the Code of Conduct have been developed: important principles are simplified and brought to life with illustrations that highlight key issues and potential pitfalls. In addition, researchers documenting cases from across the Public Service that demonstrate how officers’ poor judgement have led to major lapses, misconduct and fraud. These cases will be used in CSC’s training programmes to raise awareness of ethical issues and to facilitate classroom discussions. In the longer term, CSC hopes to establish a common curriculum to embed values and ethics in milestone programmes and other relevant courses for officers at different levels and in different roles.


Celia Lee is Researcher with the Institute of Public Administration and Management, Civil Service College. Her research interests are in public sector finance, strategic procurement, finance leadership, integrity management and forensic data analytics. She has a Master of Business Administration from the University of Huddersfield and is currently a Doctorate of Business Administration candidate at the University of Manchester.


  1. T. Koh, “Corruption Control in Singapore,” Resource Material Series 83 (2011): 122–131.
  2. Corruption Perceptions Index, 1996–2012, accessed April 17, 2013, http://www.transparency.org/research/overview.
  3. “Former SLA officers jailed for $12m fraud case”, AsiaOne News, November 4, 2011; “Singapore Civil Servant facing 455 fraud charges”, Yahoo! News, December 22, 2011; “Sex-for-business case”, AsiaOne News, June 7, 2012.
  4. D. Osborne and T. Gaebler, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector (New York: PLUME, 1992).
  5. A. Doig and J. Wilson, “The Effectiveness of Codes of Conduct,” Business Ethics 7 (1998): 140–149.
  6. See G. B. Adams and D. L. Balfour, “Market-Based Government and the Decline of Organisational Ethics,” Administration and Society 42 (2010): 615–637; D. Radhika, “Ethics in Public Administration,” Journal of Public Administration and Policy Research 4 (2012): 23–31.
  7. OECD, Ethics in the Public Service: Current Issues and Practices (Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1996).
  8. OECD, Trust in Government: Ethics Measures in OECD Countries (Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2000).
  9. L. Paine, “Managing for Organisational Integrity,” Harvard Business 2 (1994): 106–117.
  10. C. Fox, “The Use of Philosophy in Administrative Ethics,” in ed. T. L. Cooper, Handbook of Administrative Ethics (New York: Marcel Dekker, 2001): 105–130.
  11. J. Maesschalck, “Approaches to Ethics Management in the Public Sector: A Proposed Extension of the Compliance-Integrity Continuum,” Public Integrity 7 (2004): 21–41.
  12. A. Hejka-Ekins, “Ethics in In-service Training,” in T. L. Cooper, Handbook of Administrative Ethics (New York: Marcel Dekker, 2001): 79–104.
  13. S. Gilman, “Public Sector Ethics and Government Reinvention: Realigning Systems to Meet Organisational Change,” Public Integrity 1 (1999): 175–192.
  14. L. Kolberg, Essays on Moral Development: The Philosophy of Moral Development Volume 1 (New York: Harper and Row, 1981).
  15. D. Thompson, “The Possibility of Administrative Ethics,” Public Administration Review 45 (1985): 555–561.
  16. Kohlberg’s theory was also adopted by Stewart and Sprinthall’s survey research on American students and local government managers that later branched out to include Polish and Russian local government officials (Steward et al.), Wittmer’s experimental research to explore ethical decision-making, Jurkiewicz and Brown (2000)’s study that examined the link between leadership and ethics, and White’s study on the effect of gender upon moral development based on Rest’s Defining Issues Test. See D. W. Stewart and N. A. Sprinthall, “The Impact of Demographic, Professional and Organisational Variables on the Moral Reasoning of Public Administration,” in Ethics and Public Administration, ed. H G Federickson, (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1993): 205–219; D. W. Stewart, N. Sprinthall and J. D. Kem, “Moral Reasoning in the Context of Reform: A Study of Russian Officials,” Public Administration Review 62 (2002): 282–297; D. Wittmer, “Individual Moral Development: An Empirical Exploration of Public and Private-Sector Differences,” Public Integrity 2 (2000): 181–194; C. L. Jurkiewicz and R. G. Brown, “Power Does Not Corrupt Absolutely: An Empirical Study,” Public Integrity 3 (2000): 195–210; R. White, “Are Women More Ethical? Recent Findings on the Effects of Gender Upon Moral Development,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 9 (1999): 459–471; J. Rest, Moral Development: Advances in Research and Theory (New York: Praeger, 1986).
  17. L. R. Churchill, “The Teaching of Ethics and Moral Values in Teachers: Some Contemporary Confusions,” The Journal of Higher Education 53 (1992): 296–306.
  18. W. Cragg, “Teaching Business Ethics: The Role of Ethics in Business and in Business Education,” Journal of Business Ethics 16 (1997): 231–245.
  19. Scholars of philosophical ethics at the 1991 National Conference on Government Ethics Research concurred on the importance of ethics education for public administrators — see H. G. Frederickson and J. D. Walling, “Editor’s Introduction: Ethics in Contemporary Human Resources Management,” Public Personnel Management 28 (1999): 501–504. Since then, several authors have reaffirmed the importance of ethics training [see OECD, Ethics Training for Public Officials (Paris: OECD Anti-Corruption Network for Eastern and Central Europe, 2013)]; S. S. Kennedy and D. Malatesta, “Safeguarding the Public Trust: Can Administrative Ethics be Taught?” Journal of Public Affairs Education 16 (2010): 161–180; D. C. Menzel, Ethics Management for Public Administrators (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2006); N. Preston, Ethics for the Public Sector: Education and Training (NSW, Australia: Federation Press, 1994); A. Hejka-Ekins, “Ethics in In-service Training,” in ed. T. L. Cooper, Handbook of Administrative (New York: Marcel Dekker, 2001)] in public administration and schools of public administration, with the opinion that aspiring civil servants should be taught to be ethical and encourage the integration of ethics into the curriculum (see NASPAA, Code of Good Practice 2009, accessed April 17, 2013, http://www.naspaa.org/codeofgoodpractice/).
  20. See J. Perry, “The Consequences of Speaking Out: Processes of Hostility and Issue Resolution Involving Federal Whistle-Blowers,” Academy of Management Proceedings 1993: 311–315; D. C. Menzel, “Research on Ethics and Integrity in Governance,” Public Integrity 7 (2005): 147–168; R. Shareef, “Teaching Public Sector Ethics to Graduate Students: The Public Values/Public Failure Decision-making Model,” Journal of Public Affairs Education 14 (2009): 385–395; S. S. Kennedy and D. Malatesta, “Safeguarding the Public Trust: Can Administrative Ethics be Taught?” Journal of Public Affairs Education 16 (2010): 161–180.
  21. The teaching of ethics in the public sector has been included in the curricula of schools of public administration (University of Virginia, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, Indiana University, Harvard Kennedy School). Menzel has found that 40% of the schools of public administration and public affairs integrated ethics across their curricular and 60% offered some type of standalone ethics course. See D. C. Menzel, “Teaching Ethics and Values: A Survey of Graduate Public Affairs and Administration Programs in the U.S.,” Political Science and Politics 30 (1997): 518–524.
  22. J. West and E. Berman, “Ethics Training Efforts in U.S Cities: Content, Pedagogy and Impact,” Public Integrity 6 (2004): 189–206.
  23. B. Richardson, “Why We Need to Teach Crisis Management and to Use Case Studies to Do it,” Management Education and Development 24 (1993): 138–148.
  24. J. Cagle and M. Baucus, “Case Studies of Ethics Scandals: Effects on Ethical Perceptions of Finance Students,” Journal of Business Ethics 64 (2006): 213–229.
  25. V. McWilliams and A. Nahavandi, “Using Live Cases to Teach Ethics,” Journal of Business Ethics 67 (2006): 421–433.

Back to Ethos homepage