WASHINGTON – Anyone who thinks Washington is an ethical quagmire should talk to a cross-section of government employees, who say the problem is worse at the state and local levels.
Overall, three out of five government workers acknowledge witnessing violations of ethical standards, policy or law over the past year, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Ethics Resource Center. The Washington-based nonprofit research group has studied organizational ethics trends for several decades.
At the local level, 63 percent of government employees observed at least one type of misconduct, ranging from abusive behavior by superiors to bribery. At the state level, the comparable figure was 57 percent; at the federal level, 52 percent.
The trend lines in government point toward more misconduct in the future, not less, said Patricia Harned, the center's president.
The center says 30 percent of the incidents go unreported and there are too few systems in place for combatting misconduct when it is exposed.
One reason for the low reporting figure is that 17 percent of employees who did report misconduct said they experienced retaliation. One in four government workers believe that leaders tolerate retaliation.
The state of ethics in the public and private sectors is comparable, in some cases worse. For example, the study said that 8 percent of those surveyed reported witnessing alteration of documents; a similar survey among private sector workers showed 5 percent of business employees had witnessed such misconduct.
"Since Enron and the corporate scandals at the beginning of this decade, government has put a lot of pressure on business to address ethics issues, but the fact is that government has the same problem," said Harned.
The center says the proven solution to the problem is what experts in the field refer to as a strong ethical culture.
When employee believe that leaders can be trusted and when supervisors set a good example of ethical behavior, misconduct is reduced by 52 percent and retaliation is as much as 89 percent lower, the survey found.
The problem, however, is that less than one in five government workplaces have comprehensive, well-implemented ethics and compliance programs.
The center's findings were based on polling 774 government employees, 1,929 business employees and 558 nonprofit employees.