Ethics for Bureaucrats

It has become common to condemn government bureaucracy as wasteful and inefficient. According to the chapters "Ethics for bureaucrats" and "The problem of professional ethics" from the book Public service, ethics, and constitutional practice, the creation of the civil service system was not a historical accident, and remedied as well as caused problems within modern political life. But given the new political and social pressures of government agencies, and the expanded responsibilities of government bureaucrats, it is essential that unelected civil servants develop a responsive code of professional ethics to guide their work, to ensure that they behave in a democratic fashion, obeying the will of the people as well as fulfilling their professional duties.


First of all, what are bureaucrats? Bureaucrats are policy makers who are neither elected nor appointed. This method of selection is supposed to isolate them from political pressures when they make decisions, so they serve the interests of the people and their office. Their insulation from the electoral process has had both positive and negative effects. The professional nature of bureaucracy means that individuals who move up through the civil service learn with experience over time, and provide stability to the current regime (3). Democrats and Republicans may come and go, but the essential character and makeup of the civil service remains. The existence of the civil service also ensures that during a change of administration, there is some human continuity between past and present governments.

The current exam-based method of selecting civil servants was originally designed to reduce the influence of patronage, and was a response to Jacksonian-era corruption. It also reflected 19th century notions of governing as a 'science.' Civil servants were supposed to have demonstrated their ability to master the knowledge and science of government, in a way that transcended partisanship. However, simply because bureaucrats are isolated from the electoral process does not mean they are isolated from the political process, contrary to the notion of the 'neutral' bureaucrat (4). After all, the types of entities and the aspects of modern life those bureaucrats are supposed to regulate often force bureaucrats into political debates, such as the regulation of foods and drugs, transportation, and morality (5). These elements of modern life are not only politicized, but are extremely controversial, thus there is no 'cookie cutter' formula or rulebook that a bureaucrat can follow to determine, for example, if the risks of an experimental drug outweigh its potential benefits in the future. There is ambiguity even in science.

Furthermore, as the dispensation of "federal largesse" began to grow in the 1930s, the discretion of bureaucrats to dispense with federal funds likewise began to increase and their role and influence in the political system (6). Ironically, the responsibilities of handling large sums of money derived from the people fell into the hands of unelected bureaucrats rather than elected officials. This is one reason, the chapters suggest, that the role of the civil service is problematic in a democratic society. After all, is not one of the core principles of a democracy that those who have great influence upon politics must be elected? A bureaucrat who is casual or sloppy or overly self-serving in his or her department's interest in approving a new drug or subsidy for a particular farm crop will not be held accountable like a representative.

The previous defense of the civil service in a democratic society was that such jobs only dealt in realms that governed according to scientific principles of analysis, an idea that was always questionable at best, and is certainly not the case within the modern system of government. Yet too much scrutiny of the political beliefs of civil servants runs…