Wanted: Ethical behavior in public service

From left: Governor Robert Ray’s daughter Randi, David Oman, Bill Crews, Richard Gilbert, Julie Gammack (Photo by John McCarroll)

Michael V. Reagen, Ph.D. was Commissioner of Iowa’s Department of Human Services and President of the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce. He is retired and lives in Naples, Florida.

The former staff to the Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray gathered in late September at the Drake University Center bearing his name to honor the anniversary of his 95th birthday and his legacy. The event made me recall Thomas Jefferson’s quote: “I consider ethics, as well as religion, as supplements to law in the government of man.”

Bob Ray was an iconic example of ethical accountability, professionalism, and servant leadership during his fourteen years as governor and in retirement, when he continued to make extensive civic contributions.

The essence of Ray’s ethical legacy reaffirmed Jefferson’s quote and stands out in sharp relief to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former U.S. Representative George Santos, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, who have been in the news lately.

The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) also reaffirmed Jefferson’s thoughts 35 years ago, when it crafted a Code of Ethics to spotlight the practice of making moral public judgements about political action and political agents, especially the methods and judgements used to make policies, regulations and laws.

Today, ASPA’s Code of Ethics gives us eight standards for government workers and candidates for appointed and elected office to follow. All public servants are expected to:

  1. Advance the public interest. Promote the interests of the public and put service to the public above service to oneself.
  2. Uphold the Constitution and the law. Respect and support government constitutions and laws, while seeking to improve laws and policies to promote the public good.
  3. Promote democratic participation. Inform the public and encourage active engagement in governance. Be open, transparent and responsive, and respect and assist all persons in their dealings with public organizations.
  4. Strengthen social equity. Treat all persons with fairness, justice, and equality and respect individual differences, rights, and freedoms. Promote affirmative action and other initiatives to reduce unfairness, injustice, and inequality in society.
  5. Fully inform and advise. Provide accurate, honest, comprehensive, and timely information and advice to elected and appointed officials and governing board members, and to staff members in your organization.
  6. Demonstrate personal integrity. Adhere to the highest standards of conduct to inspire public confidence and trust in public service.
  7. Promote Ethical Organizations: Strive to attain the highest standards of ethics, stewardship, and public service in organizations that serve the public.
  8. Advance Professional Excellence: Strengthen personal capabilities to act competently and ethically and encourage the professional development of others.

The vast majority of our 16 million state and local government employees, our 2.8 million federal civilian employees, and 1.7 military employees are amazing public servants who advance our civil society and work daily to assure America is great.

Most are out of sight and mind—until we need them. For many, their work is not a job. It is a way of life dedicated to advancing our society which, as Bob Ray used to say, every successful person knows achievement depends on people working together.

Surely, former President George H.W. Bush’s would have agreed. Recall his words: “Whoever says Americas best days are behind it are looking the wrong direction. The United States is the best and fairest and most decent nation on the face of the earth!”

But, the days between now and the 2024 elections will be rancorous. Serious domestic and international issues divide us. Some seeking power disparage our governments and our public servants, attacking others to mask their own unethical behavior, blurring right from wrong and virtuous from scurrilous in order to advance their own vested interests.

All of us might recall there is nobody here but us to change that.

Perhaps by contrasting ASPA’s principles with what these folks say and do, we may, as Walter Cronkite urged during a previous troublesome time, reintroduce ethics into public service. That would restore people’s faith in government to fill a desperate need and allow democracy to flourish.

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: David Oman and John McCarroll provided photos from the September event. Pictured below, from left: former Ray staffers Carol Duncan, McCarroll, Oman, and Bill Crews.

Oman believes Duncan holds the all-time record for working in an Iowa governor’s office; she worked “with a smile and superb efficiency” all fourteen years of the Ray administration and for Terry Branstad’s sixteen-year stint as governor during the 1980s and 1990s.

Pictured below, from left: Randi Ray, Crews, Ray staffer Bill Jackson, Jerry Parkin (husband of former staffer Randall Parkin), and Duncan.

About the Author(s)

Michael Reagen

  • we desperately need leaders who believe in Public Goods

    remarkable to quote Bush in this context, who did more to undermine the trust of the American people in their Government (and the vital bureaucrats who make it work) then the Reagan administration? The rot in our democracy goes way beyond individual cases of corruption to include a whole national Party, woke up as the kids say.
    Writers here seem very fond of right-wing figures and sources so this might be of interest:

  • for others who don't lean right

    prof. Ben-Ghiat spells things out “Protecting Criminals is Now the GOP’s Job as an Autocratic Party}

  • Character

    Robert Ray and Tom Vilsack were both outstanding governors who ably represented long-held Iowa values.

    They successfully advanced policies that improved the lives of all Iowans.

    Today . . . Kim Reynolds has “advanced” from licking the boots of Donald Trump to aspiring to be the king-maker for Ron DeSantis.

    Our once proud state is in decline. We need leaders of fine character once again.

  • Small Piece Of Hope

    My user name gives away I’m a Ray Republican. I often think the younger generations are unaware of Bob’s legacy and how things used to [and should be] in Iowa government. There was a nice article that struck me in the Gazette recently about the young man who is the state campaign ethics director, his efforts, and it starts off with him saying Bob Ray is one of his role models. It was enough to make me have a little hope that the Ray Style may have a chance at coming back in some way with the younger generation. They must be as sick of the Reynolds Style as most of us are!!!