Study Finds Government Ethics Lapses

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Enron scandal of 2001 set off a tidal wave of concern about corruption and unethical behavior across corporate America, but a new survey shows that government agencies are not free of such behavior.

The study, released yesterday by the nonprofit Ethics Resource Center, found that nearly 60 percent of government employees at all levels -- federal, state and local -- had witnessed violations of ethical standards, policy or laws in their workplaces within the last year.

Observed misconduct was lowest at the federal level, with 52 percent of federal workers surveyed saying they had witnessed problems such as conflicts of interest, abusive behavior, alterations of documents and financial records and lying to employees, vendors or the public within the last year.

"Since Enron, policymakers have given a great deal of attention and emphasis to the need for the business sector to address their ethics issues," said Patricia J. Harned, president of the group. "But in reality, government has their own issues to address, as well."

What is at stake is government's ability to keep the public trust, Harned said.

The group analyzed data taken from a telephone survey conducted last summer that included 3,452 employees in the business, government and nonprofit sectors. Analysts culled responses from 774 government employees but did not identify participants by agency. The survey's margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Among the findings:

¿ Thirty percent of federal workers and 14 percent of state and local government workers believe their organizations have well-implemented ethics and compliance programs;

¿ The misconduct most frequently observed by federal employees was abusive behavior (witnessed by 23 percent), safety violations (21 percent), lying to employees (20 percent) and putting one's own interests ahead of the organization's ( 20 percent);

¿ Fifty-eight percent of all government workers who saw misconduct did not report it because they did not believe managers would take action, and 30 percent of all workers feared they would face retaliation if they reported what they saw. One percent used anonymous hotlines.

Not all of the survey findings were discouraging.

The group found that, compared with a previous survey in 2000, there were declines in several overtly illegal types of misconduct, including stealing, bribes, sexual harassment and discrimination. Moreover, the survey found that in government organizations with well-implemented ethics programs and strong ethical culture, misconduct fell by 60 percent, and the reporting of bad behavior increased by 40 percent.

But the data showed that fraud occurred as frequently in government as in the private sector, with comparable rates of alteration of documents, misreporting of hours worked and lying to customers, the public and workers.

For 30 years, the federal government has had an agency, the Office of Government Ethics, that provides political appointees and employees with advisory opinions and training materials. It ensures that each agency has an ethics officer and helps resolve conflicts of interest.

Ethical issues have become increasingly important, "if for no other reason than the fact that the [federal] government has become increasingly reliant on contracting and grants to independent suppliers, who are providing the government with an increasing range of goods and services," said Kenneth Ryder, a project director at the National Academy of Public Administration. "That puts a premium on having an effective ethics program."

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