ethos in public service

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The moral codes, values, and ideology that justify what is right and wrong in the public sector are referred to as public service ethos. Employees are expected to conduct and function in compliance with the established ethical principles. The government establishes the principles that workers must uphold when performing public services (Horton 33-36). Employers establish the laws and regulations that influence the cultural values that workers must follow when at their workstations and on the job. The increasing changes in the public sector have raised questions about whether the public culture remains or is just a myth. The partnership between private and public industry in delivering service to the people and growing cases of corruption and other violations of the law have raised the issue of concern about ethical management of the government affairs. How effective or applicable are they and to what extent are they still relevant are matters to the stakeholders in the sector. The welfare of the public is guaranteed in a morally upright system of government, which has to be expressed in the conduct of the employees (OECD 24-26). The public service ethos is a reality and not a myth, which explains the implementation of the public code of conduct.

Public Service Ethos

Demand for Integrity

The vetting of the public servants emphasises on integrity as one of the core pillars or a good employee. One should be reliable and without a record or culture of corruption. The integrity of the workers inspires confidence in the clients and other stakeholders. In essence, the reputation of the organisation depends on the behaviour and image of their staff. The corrupt employees create an impression that the entity they are serving condones corruption, hence, the requirement for the public servants to operate in a manner that restores the public trust in their service (Horton 37-39). Therefore, honest is a virtue that all civil servants are expected to uphold as they serve the public service, leading to the culture of conducting the government affairs in a free environment.

Furthermore, public rules and regulations are observed by the government employees as a sign of their commitment to doing what is right. Integrity issues arise when the employee has violated the law. The prosecution of criminal acts is provided for in the Constitution, hence, the socialisation of the workers to abide by the rules that govern the sector they work for and the general public conduct. The ethos that is applied in the public service trace their origin in the Weberian model of public administration, which emphasised the need for loyalty, effectiveness, neutrality, and efficiency. The civil service stresses these qualities in the employees as a moral code that one should live up to (Horton 33-34). Therefore, the public service has fashioned ethos that its servants ought to observe throughout while at the place of work and outside. The people with a questionable character such as criminals may face petition and the obstacles in their quest to serve in the public sector.

Public service ethos focuses on humanity rather than profit-making, which is the most significant pillar in building a people-oriented sector. The employees are motivated by a higher calling than just salaries. The drive to make a difference plays a vital role in shaping how the workers take their various roles. Integrity, honesty, objectivity, and impartiality (OECD 14-16). The employees are expected to look at the interests of the public from a compassionate point of view to avoid cases of acting in a manner that does not respect the basic human rights and values. Humanness influence how the employees understand what is right or wrong. When faced with ethical dilemmas on whether to serve the law of human life, the latter takes precedence.

Moreover, the existence of the public oversight committees, auditors, and anti-corruption laws serves the purpose of promoting the ethos in the public sector. The issues of dishonesty are identified and dealt with using these frameworks to encourage good behaviour among the employees. The very existence of these entities is meant to deter the civil servants from indulging in acts of immorality, hence, the presence of norms in the public service is not a myth but a reality that government employees must face (Horton 36-38). The government’s description of the civil service offers room for significant suppleness in moral and legal form of ownership, which critics may exploit to reject the existence of public ethos (OECD 34-35). However, it is good to appreciate the fact that the public service does not operate in a void of moral principles. In essence, the government is a definition of a given society, and each community has moral values that can be reflected in its organisational culture.

In the public sector, the employees are required not to engage in business activities with the government that they serve. The logic behind this position is to deny them a chance to misuse their positions and privileges for personal gains, which is a common practice across the world. It is in the interests of promoting ethical values among the labour force to deny them a chance to use their positions to gain favours and other benefits at the expense of the general public (OECD 54-56). The staff who are found to be guilty of contravening this code of conduct are subjected to the disciplinary actions as a part of ensuring that there is adherence to the set moral standard.

The emphasis on sustainable development, which emphasised by the government underscores the existence of public service ethos. The need for the government employees to work well in ensuring that there is public benefit from the employee engagement is part of the ethos that has been nurtured for a very long time in the public sector (Perry 189-190). It is in the interest of the community to have a government that has cultivated a culture of doing what is right. Despite the fact that there are corruption and other harmful elements in the public service sector, there is a sustained war against these vices. Consequently, this serves to reinforce the presence of public values in the civil and public service industry.

Different factors motivate the civil servants and public officers from those of the private sector. The needs and values of the employees in the public sector prefer helping the others than those in other industries. The culture of servant leadership illustrates the prevalence of ethics in the civil service. The employees do not base their service on high pay and privileges but the satisfaction they derive from serving citizens. The culture of loyalty to serving creates values that are spread within the civil service (Perry 188-189). The new employees are inducted into the same, hence forming a strong tradition doing what is in the best interest of the citizenry. The public employees are socialised to value service to the nation rather than the pay they receive. The feeling of being patriotic and contributing to the welfare of the country outweighs personal interests that may blur the vision to do what is right for the public. According to the James L. Perry, the public servants have trained their minds not to derive motivation from high pay but their ability to serve well and assist many. Whereas the private sector’s employees tend to be individualistic in their approach to serving the public, the public servants express socialism.

Furthermore, it is the existence of ethos in the public sector that appeal to morals and integrity. Without them, the civil servants would not feel motivated to pursue credibility in the performance of public service. In the United States, government employees value their good standing in the public service. The tainted image can quickly lead to one resigning as a way of maintaining the good reputation of the institution they serve. The integrity of the public servants is a contentious issue in the contemporary world. Vetting of senior civil servants focuses much on these areas to eliminate those who may have bad records to prevent them from transferring the same habits to the public service.

Political Beliefs

The public sector is a creation of the political system, which influences the principles and values that the civil servants abide by in the various roles of working for the civic. In the democratic societies such as the United States, democratic principles are entrenched in the public services, creating norms and values that guide the labour force. Transparency and accountability is a common practice, which aims to address the issues of bad governance and corruption. The employees are by practice expected to transact businesses over the board. Secrecy is deemed immoral and a recipe for fraud, thus abhorred (Horton 38-40). Consequently, the government offices are open to the public, which has led to the growth of the culture of openness in the civil service. When the activities of the employees are open to public scrutiny, they socialise according to the public definition of good and bad, hence, the establishment of ethos in the public service.

Moreover, the spirit of patriotism among the civil servants compels them to perform better even when the pay is little. Individuals find it self-satisfying to work for their country and, thus, try as much as they can to leave behind a rich legacy. Consequently, morality becomes linked to the best practices, which in the long runs creates a sustainable value system that the new employees copy and perpetuate in the government. The public service ethos is derived from these traditions.

Liberal ideologies that permeate the western world encourage the free flow of information and openness in the public sector. The civil servants are socialised to believe in liberalism and freedom. The clients are free to interact with the public service and seek clarifications where need be. It is for this reason that the public sector encourages the public to make inquiries or register complaints where necessary to enhance service delivery (Reynears 4-6). The net effect of all this is promoting the public good. The employees are happier when they realise that they are serving the public in the best way possible than when there is widespread dissatisfaction about the services offered.

The Public Value

The employees in the public sector are required to reflect the broader economic, social, environmental, and political benefits of their actions and services to the society. The social values have become a crucial focus area for the employees. It is common for the government employees to refer to the public good or the interest of the public when trying to justify some of their actions (Perry 188-191). The civil servants are the employees of the public, hence, must be cultured to protect the societal interest rather than personal. The essence of serving in a public office is to encourage and protect public good at all time. Therefore, the employees in the civil service are inclined to thinking about what is right for the public before considering private values and interests. It is for this same spirit that security officers will risks their lives for the sake of protecting the country.

In procurement, the value for the public money is the reference point that guides the civil servants. It is across the world, although in case of corruption this may be overlooked. The employees who are committed to serving the public interest are inclined to stand in front of unethical practices within the civil servants for they are conditioned to promote the societal good. It is common for the public to decry any transaction that does not reflect the value of the public finances (Perry 191-193). In the long run, the civil servants are socialised to embrace the culture of paying much attention to what is beneficial to the public. The option that helps to attain the highest possible value is lauded as what has minimal return is discouraged.

The broader benefits that come with public service are the motivating factor to the employees. An employee who wants to maintain a good reputation will do all that is necessary to avoid scandalous behaviour and activities. Therefore, accountability is stressed with regard to individual conduct and course of action. Responsibility is a virtue that is entrenched in the public sector across the globe. In the United States, the life of the public servants is under constant watch courtesy of the checks and balances that are provided for by free media and intra-government frameworks such as the Congress oversight.

The public hospital doctor will likely adverse the patient on the importance of caesarean and normal giving birth, but on the contrary, the private doctor will opt for caesarean even when the patient does not need such an operation because of the motivation of gaining money that is involved. Public servants try to give the best they can to the public without being induced by the pay. However, in the private sector, quality service is linked to the amount of money the client is ready to pay. In the public service, it is more about service to the people than accumulating profits or wealth, a common belief that is held by the employees in the sector (Harari 69-70). Therefore, the public service ethos guides the employees in doing what is right for the citizens and the institutions they serve.


In the public sector, professional values are encouraged among the employees to ensure that high-quality service delivery is attained. Each profession is guided by an ethical code of conduct that an employee is supposed to adhere to (Perry 190-192). For instance, the medics are not supposed to act in any manner that puts human life under risk For this reason, the industrial action by professions in this sector is compelled not to harm the patients during the strikes. Each is expected to be humane and compassionate about the welfare of the client. Patients who need emergency care are taken care of before how their cost be footed is addressed. In the private sector, this is not the case because the employees value money than serving the public.

Moreover, professionalism makes it challenging for the civil servants to be loyal to politicians, who may want to advance political interests at the expense of profession needs. Political control affects the quality of the output and how public servants perform their duties. Therefore, the employees are able to observe moral values by adhering to their professional requirements, which are anchored in the excellence and meritocracy than being swayed by the politics of the day. Impartiality is also achieved since biasness that is politically motivated is avoided. The government employees are required to be neutral in their services to the public, a common culture that is practised across the globe (Perry 189-190). The individuals who engage in partisan activities can be held liable for their misconduct, hence deterring the repeat of similar acts in the future.

The employees who are socialised within their areas of service and the accompanying ethical accountability influence the public service satisfaction and ethos. The congruence between professional demands and high moral values ensures quality service. The civil servants are restrained from behaving in a manner that betrays their firm professional grounding (Hebson and Marchington 486-487). Each category of professions tries to defend the reputation of their field in attempting to do what is right for the public and their job description.

Horton contends that in the 1920s, the British public service had already developed ethos, which defined the behaviour of the public servants (Horton 32-33). Across the world, moral values have existed for many years and have played crucial role in improving the government’s international standing as well as how the civil servants behave towards each other and the public. As a democratic country, Britain has sought to cultivate a culture of a people-oriented administration that serves the public interest. As a result, the employees are required to put the public interests ahead of theirs. Self-sacrifice is seen as a virtue that civil servants ought to attune themselves to the benefits of the Commonwealth (Richards and Smith 52-54). It is assumed that those who decide to serve in the public offices are not motivated by anything other than promoting the public good. Therefore, vices such as greedy for wealth are discouraged in favour of dedication to serving the public.

Governments have a code of ethics that employees are to adhere to in their daily activities. The working mechanism is put in place to ensure that there is compliance and that those who violet it are punished. The laws and regulations serve the purpose of reinforcing a particular desired behaviour in the civil service (OECD 6). For instance, the ethical code defines what is acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace, which creates values and norms for the civil servants. The abuse of the office is a common problem to the senior employees who tend to use their positions for personal gains. The public service does not condone this kind of behaviour because it works against the spirit of servant leadership that it seeks to promote. Bad behaviour is identified courtesy of the existence of ethical norms, which makes it easier to define an immoral activity that is committed by the government employee. Therefore, the public service has developed principles that encourage doing what is good for the community.

Pro-Social Welfare in the Public Sector

The pro-social benefits behaviour by the government has led to the establishment of a culture of responding to the public values. The civil servants are required to encourage a course of action that creates an environment that is conducive for the citizen’s enjoyment of their social rights and progress (Gregg, Grout, Ratcliffe, Smith, and Windmeijer 2-4). Consequently, the provision of medical and housing services are supported by the need to promote the public welfare, which permeates all sectors of the government. The societal desires supersede the employee’s ambitions. Therefore, civil servants are supposed to align their personal goals with those of the general public. Failure to do this is mostly construed to mean lack of public ethos.

Additionally, in the public service, employees do overtime job because of their love to serve the people. In the private sector, extra work is paid for, however, it is not the case in the civil service (Gregg, Grout, Ratcliffe, Smith, and Windmeijer 2-4). However, this does not deter the employees from delivering their best and working extra hours for the public good. The behaviour can be attributed to the established values that guide the conduct of the civil servants, the culture of dedicating one’s life to serving the public with all his or her heart. It is presupposed that the chance to work as a public employee comes with high expectations and responsibilities towards advancing what is good for the community. A doctor will opt to work extra time on a patient who needs special attention same as an immigration officer will try to serve all the clients who need his attention albeit the standard working time has elapsed when they have not been all attended to. In essence, the reason is the existence and value of a pro-social behaviour in the public service. Therefore, time constraints are not supposed to hinder one from serving the people, hence the willingness of the employees to work even after the regular working hours.

In the public service, a lively civil society keeps the employees on the check. The actions and behaviour of the public servants are under constant scrutiny of media, non-governmental organizations that deal with cases of corruption and governance as well as the general citizenry (Richards and Smith 48-49). As a result, the employee is compelled to behave in a manner that adheres to the public view of what is right. It is for this reason that there will be an open outcry if a public or civil servant handles the clients with arrogance. Media will pick up such stories and amplify it to the disadvantage of the perpetrator, deterring a repeat of similar behaviour (Reynaers 45-48). The public examination of the public servant’s action and conduct defines for them what is reasonable and unreasonable. The public good is expected to prevail in cases where there is a conflict between an individual and public values. The employees are not hired to advance their views but those of the society. Therefore, a collective duty of the government workers an officers to promote defined ethical values within the public service.

Sexual harassment is loathed in the public sector; the senior employees cannot use their positions to fulfil their bodily desires. The victim can report the perpetrator to authorities for action (Horton 34-37). The scandal involving President Clinton and Monika Lewinsky generated a public heat because there are set ethos that government the public industry. Public officers and civil servants are expected to observe specific ethical standards throughout their service. It does not matter how influential a person is, the public values have to be followed to avoid the backlash and punishment that come with the violation. Subsequently, the general definition of right and wrong influence how the public service develops its code of ethics, they have to align with the public expectations. As a result, through practice, the civil service is able to create ethical norms that serve the interests of the general public and the wellbeing of the government.

Some scholars have also blamed the partnership between private and public sector for its adverse effect on the civic values, which strengthens the idea of the existence of public service ethos. Profit-making and efficiency mainly drive private industry, which explains its competitiveness and efficiency. Nevertheless, the alluded adverse effects of the interaction between the two do have much substance due to the firmly established norms about the public service (Reynears 46). The changes in values to reflect the competitive nature of the private firms have not had a significant impact on the public code of ethics. The public values have been changing over time to meet the changes in people’s perception of what is right and wrong (Horton 36-38). However, the alterations do not mean that there are no public values and principles in the civil service. Instead, there have been reforms over the time to align with changes in the public values and norms. For instance, transparency was not the primary concern in early governments, but as the society advanced and gained more consciousness on how best public interests can be managed, the need to conduct the government businesses in openness increased and became a value that is cherished in democratic communities.


The public service ethos is a reality that has shaped and continues to develop morality among the civil servants. State agencies are guided by the virtues, norms, and principles of governance that trace their roots in the public code of ethics. The government rules and regulations serve as the vital source of the public service ethos. The values that guide the public and civil servants are firmly entrenched in the community’s understanding of what is wrong and right, the employees having been raised in the same society, are socialised to abide by them as a way of meeting the expectations of the general public. Professionalism among the government employees also contributes to the development of values and principles that shape and define what is acceptable and improper in the public service. Each category of the professions has their unique codes of ethics, although some of the values such as integrity cut across the board. Political culture and social life of the society contribute to the creation of norms that govern the government employees. Democratic communities such as the British and the United States seek to promote good governance by advancing transparency, accountability, and justice in their administrations. Therefore, the government employees are expected to act and behave in a manner that reflects those ideals. The public values in the public sector have been changing over time to meet the changes in people’s perception of what is right and wrong. Self-sacrifice is seen as a virtue that civil servants ought to attune themselves to the benefits of the Commonwealth. Ethos in the public sector is not a myth by a daily reality that can be used to understand what influences the behaviour pattern of the civil servants and public officers.

Works Cited

Gregg, P. Grout, P., Ratcliffe, A., Smith, S., and Windmeijer, F. “How Important Is Pro Social Behaviour in the Delivery of Public Services.” Centre for Market and Public Organisation. Working Paper N.08/197, 2008.

Harari, M. “Organizational Correlate of Public Service Motivation: A Meta-Analysis of Two Decades of Empirical Research.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, vol. 27, 2017, pp. 68-84

Hebson, G. Grimshaw, D. and Marchington, M. “PPPs and the Changing Public Sector Ethos: Case Study Evidence from the Health and Local Authority Sectors.” Work, Employment and Society, vol. 17, no. 3, 2003, pp.481-501.

Horton, S. The Public Service Ethos in the British Civil Service: An Historical Institutional Analysis. Public Policy and Administration, vol. 21, no. 1, 2006, pp. 32-48.

OECD. Ethics in the Public Service: Current Issues and Practice, Public Management Occasional Papers, No. 14. OECD, 1996.

Perry, J. “Antecedent of Public Service Motivation.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory: J-PART, vol. 7, no. 2, 1997, pp.181-197.

Reynaers, Anne-Marie. "Public Values in Public-Private Partnerships." Public Administration Review, vol. 74, no. 1, 2013, pp. 41-50.

Richards, D. and Smith, M. “The Public Service Ethos and the Role of the British Civil Service.” West European Politics, vol. 23, no. 3, 2000, pp. 45-66.

November 17, 2022

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