Ethics Ensemble

Workplace problems aren't at the heart of the challenge.

In January, the nonprofit Ethics Resource Center offered a stark warning about growing misconduct in government. "We believe that the next Enron could take place in the public sector," said center president Patricia Harned.

The report listed discrimination, sexual harassment, lying to stakeholders and Internet abuse among nine kinds of misconduct that pose a "high risk" in the federal workplace. It also said there was a severe risk of abusive or intimidating behavior, lying to employees and putting one's own interests ahead of the organization's.

The center surveyed 772 public sector employees, including 188 in federal government. To me, this sample didn't seem big enough to support a sweeping "next Enron" pronouncement, at least at the federal level. But still, the survey's observation that two in 10 federal employees work in "environments conducive to misconduct" was disturbing. And we have seen cases of gross misconduct: former Air Force procurement official Darleen Druyun was sent to jail for her corrupt dealings with contractor Boeing Co. as it was competing for a mammoth aircraft contract.

Ethics in the workplace, the topic of the center's survey, are indeed important; we don't want discrimination, lying, favor-seeking, personal enrichment, favoritism or other such problems. At the federal level, extensive bureaucratic structures deal with such issues, including inspectors general, agency equal employment and ethics offices, and the Office of Government Ethics. And, as Elizabeth Newell reports this month, there's a brand new ethics program in the works to govern contractors' reporting of possible violations.

Workplace issues are important, but more compelling, to my mind, are the ethical issues officials confront as they administer laws and policies, for here we deal with choices that affect hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.

So, for example, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson last fall was faced with deciding on California's request for a waiver allowing it to set its own strict standards for vehicle emissions. Other states were standing in line to follow suit. One memo to Johnson suggested he should consider resigning if he denied the waiver, charging that EPA's credibility would be "irreparably damaged."

As a judge for this year's National Magazine Awards, I encountered gripping stories about decisions to withhold benefits from vulnerable populations. In its April 9, 2007, issue, The Nation told the tale of war-damaged soldiers who were denied benefits and discharged on grounds they had pre-existing "personality disorders." The acting surgeon general of the Army was shown to have callously disregarded the injustices these soldiers suffered.

Similarly, cleanup workers at the Rocky Flats Plant nuclear weapons facility in Colorado, seeking compensation for cancers they've contracted, have been subjected to obfuscation and delay by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Denver's city magazine, 5280, exposed in its November 2007 issue the bureaucratic Catch-22 these workers have faced.

And in its August 2007 issue, Gentlemen's Quarterly detailed the agonizing choice military lawyers have faced as they weigh their obligations to the Constitution against assignments to defend prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Ethicists searching for Enron-scale scandals might look also to the sins of executive and legislative omission that allowed unfettered growth of the 1990s savings and loan scandal and the recent subprime lending greedfest. They might focus on the proclivity of today's politicians to pile mountains of debt on their descendents. They might cast an eye on congressional earmarks, decried but also embraced by this year's presidential candidates. They might think official deceptions about the causes and costs of the wars we're fighting. These, much more than workplace problems, are at the root of the public's disillusionment with government today.

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