How to Teach an Ethical Code to Government Officials

 “You cannot teach people to be ethical.”

There are countless “experts” in the world that teach this negative idea.  If you don’t believe me, type “can’t teach ethics” into your search engine and look at what they have to say.  It is a sorrowful opinion of one’s fellow man and . . .


I believe a few basic things about people.  1. They are basically good.  2. They are doing the best they can to live good and ethical lives with the information they have.  Of course, some folks make wrong headed decisions sometimes, but they are generally not trying to be unethical.  They are trying to solve some problem relating to their survival and are not using the proper information.

Given proper information, most people operate on rules of conduct that support the survival of their communities, their families, and themselves.  I also believe that most people understand that harming others through corruption or other means, is not good for their own survival.

Like it or not, government is very important to the handling of all manner affairs in our daily lives.  Roads, communications, safety, law enforcement, and many other things are handled by government on behalf of the people.  You will find this is true even in non-democracies.  Therefore, it is absolutely essential that these matters be handled with the highest integrity.

Suppose for the moment that my faith in man and God is not misplaced – how do you teach ethics to government officials?

Developing a Professional Code of Conduct for Attorneys in Southern Sudan  

In September 2009 I had the good fortune to work with the Ministry of Legal Affairs and Constitutional Development in a two day seminar covering Understanding Corruption and Ethical Rules for Government Lawyers.  In the first day of the workshop we discussed the types of behavior necessary to support the survival of individuals, groups and society.  We also discussed the role that various institutions play in promoting that survival.  As a counterpoint we also identified those behaviors by individuals and groups that weaken survival of individuals, groups, and society.  The group immediately recognized that all of those behaviors that weaken survival can be described as corruption.

On the second day we discussed the role of government attorneys in the survival of the community and society and began to identify those behaviors that should be expected among government attorneys, and those that should be prohibited.  Without realizing it they had developed a code of conduct for government attorneys that matched professional codes of conduct found in the U.S.

In fact, a code of conduct was in existence for Sudanese government attorneys.  Very few of the attorneys were aware of its existence, and only one of 75 attorneys had read it.

Success stories written by the participants celebrated their realization of the importance of their jobs to the survival of their families, their communities and their nation.  Indeed, many expressed an aggressive intention to exercise their role as government attorneys to shut down fraudulent contracts and begin collecting the performance bonds under the contracts for contractors that were paid, but did not perform.

“Everybody Knows That!”

Most of the attorneys there had had some passing familiarity with the subject of ethics.  All of them had previously sat through a class on the subject.  But few had considered ethics as a fundamental for survival for themselves and their families.  It had been primarily understood to be another set of rules for them to know.

Perhaps “everybody knows” what good behavior is and perhaps not.  What is clear is that the attorneys walked out of the workshop with either new or revitalized ideas about how to make things better for their communities and their country and they wrote testimonials about their realizations and intentions.  Moreover, many of them asked if the workshop could be delivered annually.

Statements of intention are well and good, but in this case, these government attorneys actually did begin stopping contracts.  Attorneys who had previously been accused of having no purpose began taking action to protect their government and their society.  In fact, one group of attorneys stopped a questionable contract for $100 Million USD.

There are other examples where this group of attorneys began taking a role to ensure the survival of their society.

Imagine . . .

If this sort of motivation can be instilled with the help of a two day workshop, just imagine what could happen if it were a ongoing part of their education requirements.

Brian Pinkowski

A Sample Workshop Exercise to Strengthen ethics with government employees.

Workshop Exercises  (Can take more than one full day):

1.  Use a Socratic style of teaching for all the exercises below except where otherwise indicated.  Realize that there is no “correct” answer and that this is to lead them to develop an understanding of ethics on a personal level.

2.  Lead the group through a discussion of the role of government in their lives and how it helps survival of the community.  Also include a discussion of what life might be like without government.

3.   Discuss the things that government does that actively helps their personal survival.   Students should answer this individually on paper.

4.  Identify those things that government MUST do to help the survival of communities and society.  Students should answer this individually on paper after a group discussion.

5.  Identify how the intentional or unintentional failure of government employees to do their job weakens society and weakens the survival of the employee and their colleagues.  Students should answer this individually on paper after a group discussion.

6.  Identify how their job helps the survival of society.  Students should answer this individually.

7.  Identify the most important things they personally need to do to contribute to the survival of their society by competently doing their job.  Students should answer this individually on paper after a group discussion.

They will discover many important things about their own thinking and what it means for the survival as a group and as a nation.  Many of the participants will realize significant changes that need to occur in their own activities and their expectations of their peers.

8.   Ask students to write a short success story to describe any realizations they have had about how they can improve things in their lives and the lives of others.

Congratulate them on a job well done.

Invite students to share their stories with the group, if they wish.

Certainly, there may be other effective methods for instilling or revitalizing ethics among government employees.  But these simple steps are effective and workable.

Leading a group through this process will result in changes in attitude and develop a personal and group agreement on the right conduct for employees and officials whose responsibilities are important to the survival of communities.

I’d love to hear of your  best experiences attempting to teach ethics to employees.

Brian J. Pinkowski

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