Study: Government Workplaces Need Ethics Makeover

January 29, 2008 ( - The next ethical scandal may well unfold in a government setting, according to a new study.

A news release about the Ethics Resource Center’s (ERC) National Government Ethics Survey (NGES) indicates that many state and local governments currently suffer a high incidence of ethical misbehavior and frequently do not have a formal ethics program to deal with it.According to the announcement, the federal government fared slightly better when workers at all three government levels were questioned about incidents of misconduct, their reporting of those actions, and the existence and quality of programs to enforce ethical standards.

Slightly less than one-third (30%) of federal workers surveyed said they 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. The results were even less impressive at the state level (where only 14% saw strong ethics programs and a mere 7% perceive a truly ethical culture) and in local government (14% and 9%, respectively).

“The next Enron could occur within government,” said ERC President Patricia Harned, in the news release. “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. Government – especially at the state and local levels – simply is not doing enough to address the problem.”

The announcement said almost two thirds of local government employees (63%) indicated they observed at least one type of misconduct in the previous year. At the state level, the rate of reported misconduct was 57%, while 52% of federal workers said they had witnessed ethics breaches.

Local government had the highest level of workers who witnessed misconduct but did not report it (34%), ahead of 29% at thestate level and 25% within federal agencies. At the state level, 17% of employees who reported misconduct said they experienced retaliation. Of state employees who witnessed misconduct and chose not to report it, 30% feared retaliation from their bosses, and 26% feared peer retaliation.

At all government levels, confidential whistleblowers were shunned by most who witnessed misconduct. Overall, only 1% of government workers used hotlines to report the misconduct.

In all, 3,452 employees in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors were polled. Responses from 774 government employees were isolated and weighted for NGES. Participants were age 18 or older, currently employed at least 20 hours per week for their primary employer, and working for an organization that employs at least two people. All interviews were conducted June 25-August 15, 2007.

The survey report is here .