I read with sadness and, yes, with a disgust shared by fellow Americans, as one of our foremost nonprofits dealt with mismanagement at the highest levels (I have been and remain a supporter of the cause and I am a Navy and Army veteran). I am not only grieved, but I am reminded of the opportunity for reform before us. My background includes a lifetime of public service in both nonprofit sector (ministry, the Church, nonprofits) and the government (an Army Reserve Chaplain), as well as being an educator in both theology and in public service. This background leads me to these observations and, perhaps, this word of hope.
This present episode of the what-appears-to-be an ever-growing trend in nonprofit and governmental leadership scandal—consequently, eroding public trust—points to, among other remedies, the value of returning to a professional “civil service” profession for public service. The answer is for supporters and those in governance to demand that their own senior leadership be examples of the finest in public administration. Gone are the days, in that far-away British society, when a question was asked a young man, “Will you go into law, medicine, the Church, or civil service?” Times change. Yet, there was something noble in public service that allowed its career choice to be placed next to becoming a minister. As Woodrow Wilson, then, Dr. Wilson, a professor of Bryn Mawr College, wrote, “The task is great and important enough to attract the best minds” (Political Science Quarterly, July 1887). Today, we need the best and brightest young men and women to consider public service—civil service—as a career. To do so, we need to recover public service leadership as a noble vocation on behalf of others for the greater good.
The long and sometimes tawdry trail of public administration in this country, that brought us from the Jacksonian cronyism to the reformers like Theodore Roosevelt, is needing some serious road-repair-work in our day. Schools of government and public policy are working hard to send forth graduates who are knowledgeable in organizational theory, public policy analysis, human capital management, and principles of financial management in the public sector, as well they should be; but courses in leadership and ethics may be the place to focus greater attention. If the culture ( or is the home?) is failing us in creating homes (or the home creating the culture) where Western Civilization values are incubated, then perhaps some deep-reading in Woodrow Wilson’s seminal work on public administration or a more in-depth analysis of the meaning of “virtue” in public service is required. Did the fired leadership of the Wounded Warriors Project ever go through time of study, reflection, practical work experience, and precise, supervised academic writing on the meaning of virtue in public service? Perhaps. I wonder, though.
My prayer is that this crisis will not end the good ministry of this nonprofit, but will serve as a vital lesson for governing bodies to remember that the professional, ethical leadership of our charities and our governmental agencies demands public servants in the highest tradition of excellence. Yet, be careful to note that “excellence” does not mean “nothing-but-the-best” glamour and the resulting embarrassments, but rather speaks to a depth of knowledge and commitment to public administration and public service; one that is grounded in a code of ethics and a spirit of servant-leadership. As a minister of the Gospel, as well as a lifelong public servant, I believe that the practical ethics of our leaders and organizations must be tethered to a higher creed—if not in the formal documents of the organization, that, of course, may be serving a broader public, then, in the hearts and minds of those who serve. For without a creed a code will crumble.
At the beginning and end of every crisis in “public service” is, of course, “the public:” in this case, it is the wounded warriors who desperately need the ministry of mercy and justice that this nonprofit was founded to deliver. For their sake we pray only the best for that organization and other nonprofits and government agencies like them.
The following is an example of a Code of Ethics that is studied and embraced by numerous schools of government where public administrators are taught in the United States and Canada.
The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) advances the science, art, and practice of public administration. The Society affirms its responsibility to develop the spirit of responsible professionalism within its membership and to increase awareness and commitment to ethical principles and standards among all those who work in public service in all sectors. To this end, we, the members of the Society, commit ourselves to uphold the following principles:
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.