Ethics and Government Employees: How Do Federal Employees Compare?

Is government ethics an oxymoron? With an entire agency and numerous ethics advisers spread throughout federal agencies, one would hope that level of misconduct in federal agencies would be minimal. It isn’t minimal but a new report shows that the federal government is at least ahead of state and local governments in the ethics arena.

On the FedSmith site, we feature news items about the federal workforce. We are occasionally criticized by readers who do not like to read stories about federal employees who have committed a crime. And, unfortunately, it seems like there are plenty of news items about federal employees who have done something that can lead to stiff fines or imprisonment. In fact, we ran a story back in 2006 on the subject of “Criminal Activity Increasing Among Federal Employees.” The gist of the column was that 54% of readers who responded to a survey question said that criminal activity among federal employees in going up.

In the recent past, we have reported on news items about selling free fare cards for fun and profit, “Cash Advances and Government Travel Cards Lead to Suspension,” and even an article on “Where is the Outrage?

As we get caught up in the daily workday routine, it is easy to forget that federal employees are entrusted with considerable authority and can impact how our government is perceived by the public. As noted by the Ethics Resource Center, the most important asset of a government is trust. If citizens believe that those in the government can be trusted to act on their behalf, a government can be effective. If that trust is lost, chaos can quickly ensue.

But despite the perception of many readers that misconduct among federal employees may be heading in the wrong direction, here is a bit of good news. A new report shows that there is more criminal activity among state and local government employees than among federal employees. A report from the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) shows a strong correlation to the FedSmith survey noted above. It shows that 52 percent of federal employees have observed at least one type of misconduct among their colleagues in the previous year. In effect, the ethical behavior of some federal employees may be increasing, but it could be worse–and is worse at the state and local levels.

The report will not generate much enthusiasm for local governments, many of which are expanding rapidly to be able to spend the money that has been rolling in from local property taxes in recent years. The ethics report shows that “Incidences of observed misconduct are lowest within the federal government (52 percent) and highest in local governments (63 percent). Employees in state governments observe misconduct at a rate equivalent to the national average for all government (57 percent).”

The report also addressed the question of why there is more ethical behavior among federal employees. The conclusion: more than one in four federal employees indicated that leadership and supervisors demonstrated a strong commitment to ethics — roughly 67 percent more than at state and local levels. Given the impact that strong ethical culture has on observed misconduct, this accounts for the lower levels of misconduct observed at the federal level. So, while federal supervisors are often criticized for one reason or another, some kudos are due for the federal managerial staff in this instance.

But that needs to be put into perspective. While the federal government looks good by comparison to state and local levels, it isn’t that good. A few years ago, the federal ethics office consisted of a couple of people designated with that responsibility within the Office of Personnel Management. There is now an entire agency devoted to “prevent conflicts of interest on the part of Government employees, and to resolve those conflicts of interest that do occur. In partnership with executive branch agencies and departments, OGE fosters high ethical standards for employees and strengthens the public’s confidence that the Government’s business is conducted with impartiality and integrity.”

Despite this considerable effort of time and money, only 30% of federal workers surveyed believe their organizations have well-implemented ethics and compliance programs. Only one in 10 said there is a strong ethical culture in their federal workplace. At the state level only 14% saw strong ethics programs and a 7% perceive a truly ethical culturre. The local government figures were 14% and 9%, respectively.

Part of the problem in government is apparently the lack of an ethical culture. This is not as much of a problem at the federal level as noted above. But, not surprisingly, when people feel they are going to get caught or get in trouble, they are more honest. The report found that there is a 52 percent reduction in misconduct when there is a strong ethical culture in place. In a press release from the ERC, Patricia Harned, the President of the ERC is quoted: “The next Enron could occur within government. Almost one quarter of public sector employees identify their work environments as conducive to misconduct — places where there is strong pressure to compromise standards, where situations invite wrongdoing and/or employees’ personal values conflict with the values espoused at work.”

Some readers occasionally comment that the federal government is better equipped to run certain programs as it is relatively free of fraud and corruption which, in the view of some, is much more rampant in business than in government circles. The report did not break down the results by state, local or federal levels but did find that the incidence of fraud is exactly the same in government as it is in private business.

Local government had the highest level of workers who witnessed misconduct but did not report it — 34%. That compares with 29% at the state level and 25% within federal agencies.

In summary, the federal government is apparently more ethical than other levels of government. That, perhaps, can lead a few ethics advisers or those working within the halls of the Office of Government Ethics to give themselves a pat on the back. For the 52% who have spotted ethical problems in their federal agencies, perhaps it will make you feel better to tell yourself: “At least we’re better than the other guys.”

You can download the entire report from the Ethics Resource Center website. For more information, check out the press release “Governments at All Levels Show High Rates of Misconduct; ‘Next Enron’ Could Be in Public Sector, ERC Survey Finds.”

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47