Feature Story

More feature stories by year:


Return to: 2013 Feature Stories


April 5, 2013: HubDot

Public Works and Ethics Go Hand in Hand

By Harry C. Lorick

Ethical behavior helps us live and work in a civil society. Human nature dictates that we act in our own self-interest in most circumstances unless we feel a moral obligation to others or society. Today's society promotes a "me first" mentality. Citizens expect public works officials to be watchful and careful with the resources entrusted to them. How can we create an environment that will encourage ethical behavior in the public works sector?

What is ethics?

Ethics is a branch of philosophy which involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Ethical behavior stems from a reasoned, honest and objective attempt at insight. It is often cited as being a critical factor of successful management and leadership.

Why care about ethics in the public works sector?

Public servants have to deal with natural and manmade emergencies that may require efforts to protect life, environment, and property issues along with managing considerable resources including employees, equipment, citizens, and elected leaders. Los Angeles County, for example, has a $1 billion annual public works budget, more than 4,000 employees, and numerous multi-million dollar projects. Even in small cities, the public works and parks department often consumes 25 percent to 35 percent of the entire budget. And tasks encompassing repairing, installing, and/or removing a sidewalk, roadway, or sewer line may affect many citizens within and around the immediate vicinity. Public servants have a legal and moral obligation to uphold the highest standards of their office, and are accountable to the public they serve. This includes:

• using impartial judgment in providing services to the public;
• being accountable to the public and acting in a transparent manner for clarity and understanding of their actions and use of public resources;
• using public dollars effectively and efficiently, accounting for appropriate and legal use of all resources;
• avoiding conflicts of interest that could undermine judgment as well as action that could create any appearance of impropriety;
• treating all people they work with, for, or through and serve with dignity;
• performing work with agreed compensation salaries, benefits, and perks without acceptance of other remuneration; and
• disclosing any relationship that may benefit others by their action or lack of action in a leadership position.

Prioritizing values and guidelines

A public works official should be honest, accountable, dedicated, and professional as well as apply common sense to real life situations. To evaluate ethics, personal judgment is often applied, which by itself may lead to flawed decision.

Some ethics guidelines to achieve a logical ethical conclusion can be used from various sources. A guideline of basic ethical decision processes could provide a more stable and sustainable outcome. One example is Perry (2011) who outlines a six-step process framework that could prove useful for public works leaders:
1) Explain issues in basic terms.
2) Explore and compile relevant facts.
3) Imagine alternative actions.
4) Assess relevant moral claims and values.
5) Evaluate logical soundness of selection of alternative.
6) Eliminate and/or reduce obstacles and select.

Another set of additional common sense guidelines that can help in any ethics decision process is outlined below:

• Knowing something is wrong and then doing it is unacceptable; acting on what you believe is right, even with limited facts, and then facing the consequence is all that can be expected.
• "If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck…." Even the appearance of impropriety of an action may destroy an otherwise positive and successful outcome. Leaders should be careful in every action they take even if they are not legally or morally wrong.
• Visualizing your face on the cover of a national newspaper or publication such as USA Today or in a YouTube video outlining the action you took or did not take will make you think about the appearance of all decisions and statements before acting.
• Lastly, remember the Golden Rule. Treat others the way you want to be treated and a lot of communication, personal, and personnel issues will disappear, which may also clarify your decision-making. This application can compel you to put everything in proper prospective when the many facts, comments, and communication cloud up the issue.

Mission statement

Once values and guidelines have been prioritized and established, a clear mission statement should be used, or prepared if missing, then communicated and followed. The mission statement is another key organizational alignment tool for ethics and is a general guide that describes desirable ends and the means of achieving those ends, often in a general, non-specific way. It provides a way of judging actions and outcomes. Mission statements are often prepared at various levels within an organization and should be compiled based on the agency's, department's, or group's true values. It is best to avoid preparing a mission statement based on the review of other agencies' statements and copying one that seems the most relevant.

As a public works practitioner, one has to look at consequences of actions in terms of the mission. The mission statement should be responsive, efficient, effective, honest, impartial, fair, equitable, accountable, compassionate, dedicated, and professional. It should also inspire a "can-do" attitude and promote common sense thinking in serving the public.

Each situation requires analysis of the unique circumstances and choosing from alternative means of achieving desirable ends. It also means balancing all applicable values, not just those consistent with the expectations of citizens, councils, and your superiors.

Lastly, an important test to a solid mission statement is to evaluate if the mission statement is achievable. At times, the demand for public works services exceeds the supply of resources dedicated to those services. The goals and expectations stated in the mission statement should be balanced with reality to achieve workable compromises. Today's public works challenge is finding the balance between the aging infrastructure and maintaining and improving facilities and service with the available labor, equipment, material, and financial resources.

Here's one mission statement example from the Harford County, Md., Public Works Department: "Hartford County Department of Public Works, guided by common sense, accountability, and compassion strives to plan, construct, and maintain the infrastructure to deliver a transportation network, water, wastewater, solid waste management services, and public facilities to enhance the quality of life for all."

Types of ethical problems and ethical dilemmas

Ethical challenges come up in any workplace, but their significance is heightened in the public sector. Managerial mischief is usually spotted and recognized as wrong by reasonable people. It can include illegal, unethical, or questionable behavior. How a perpetrator behaves is also noteworthy in the ethics area. Moral mazes are those which are potential conflicts of interest, wrongful use of resources, or mismanagement of contracts.

Ethical dilemmas come in all shapes and sizes. Conflicts of interest arise when organizational resources are directed toward private interest and when a person of authority has influence over decisions such as hiring and contracts. Making proper disclosure about contracts and purchasing decisions, hiring processes, salaries and benefits, and political activities requires transparency and published policies to govern all areas of public disclosure, reporting, and adherence. Outside remuneration including benefits from employment activities such as frequent flier miles, "marketing" lunches, and honoraria or gifts are examples of items that should be disclosed, reported, and returned. Salaries, benefits, and perks need to have appropriate structures with considerations for the high- and low-end employees. The criteria must also be appropriate in size and complexity, comparable to similar organizations and justifiable. Policies related to personal relationships in the workplace need to be established and adhered to in order to ensure fairness in all activities to avoid discrimination, favoritism, nepotism, sexual harassment, and intimidation. To ensure accountability, efforts need to be conducted within the mission and prioritized values established.

Competence and ethics

Competence and having a moral compass go hand in hand. Good intentions cannot compensate for incompetence. The public expects reliable, competent, and professional steering of the infrastructure by its public works employees. Competence alone without a moral compass can lead to unethical behavior that can cause injurious situations.

Courage and ethics

Being ethical in any situation may result in loss of friendship, popularity, advancement potential, and possibly even one's job. It takes courage and integrity to resist the temptation to act in one's own self-interest.

Applying ethics: Expectations and reality

Balancing expectations with what is reasonably achievable is in the forefront of ethical behavior in public works.

Example: Ethical contract management
• Common sense suggests that you want to achieve the best quality for the best price.
• Bidding rules are established to ensure fairness and impartiality, which tends to emphasize price over quality.
• Public employee task is to find a solution by applying the principals of honesty, accountability, and professionalism.

Example: Traffic engineering
• Honesty in realizing that not all problems will be solved and not all accidents are preventable.
• Be professional so you follow the established guidelines and standards of your profession.
• Be fair, equitable, impartial, yet compassionate. You have considered the needs of all roadway users while using common sense about safety, efficiency, and addressing concerns of citizens and acting on problems.

Example: Environment/sustainability
• Expected to be responsive, compassionate, and professional.
• Lofty goals in this area need to be balanced with common sense by being honest, accountable, and efficient.
• Be open to thinking outside the box, trying new ideas while being responsible about experimenting with public funds.
• Be sensitive to environmental concerns but not caving to those whose agenda is to stop the project.
• All actions have consequences and doing nothing is the only way to avoid any impact.

Institutionalizing ethics

Government has made attempts though various methods to address these issues. Among those have been:

• Legislation — passing various laws and statues at various levels of government such pro-ethics, pro-service, pro-whistle blower, anti-corruption.
• Implementation — many local governments have put into place programs including education and training as well as established Codes of Conduct. In Florida, for example, professional engineers must take and pass ethics courses every two years for license renewal.
• Professionalization — required documentation and inclusion of role of ethics by leaders is often part of job acceptance.
Even the appearance of impropriety is one that public works professionals should consider. Going to lunch once a week with a particular contractor who works for the city and is your friend may not have real ethical consequences, yet the appearance could impact other public works employees' behavior as well as their trust in you.


Public Works departments must educate and establish frameworks for accountability with guidelines, mission statements, goals, and encouraging transparent common sense concepts that can help guide leaders to make decisions in an ethical manner. Public works employees will then be equipped with the tools to be aware of potential ethical dilemmas.

Our communities deserve public servants who embody the six pillars of character — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, justice, and fairness — and lastly civic virtue and citizenship (Josephson Institute 2002). Public Works employees must use public resources wisely and transparently, while providing services to all in an ethical and responsible manner.

Harry Lorick is principal of Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based LA Consulting. Contact him at hlorick@laconsulting.com. LA Consulting, established in 1993, provides a wide variety of planning, systems and technology services applied to public agencies and municipalities with an emphasis on systems implementation and technical support for public works operations and maintenance.


• Josephson Institute, 2002, "The six pillars of character," www.josephsoninstitute.org
• Perry, D., 2011, "Ethics in Public Services," Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Return to: 2013 Feature Stories