Coded ethics

Many news stories are reporting turmoil in the Trump transition team. It seems that warring camps want to exclude other groups from policymaking positions. 

Less-reported is a concern in some circles that federal employees may choose to leave service than to serve in the next Administration. 

And there are reports today about how the President has to choose the code of ethics that his staff will follow. Having a code at that level is a choice, not a requirement. 

Following the election there were unusually prominent discussions of codes of ethics, Hatch Act requirements, and similar concerns. I can’t predict whether the FBI will be investigated, whether DOJ’s OIG will oversee the FBI’s Twitter accounts, whether a special prosecutor will be named, etc. 

Clearly, though, ethics in government is a concern. Do we expect senior White House staff to follow a code of ethics? What would this President want that code to include or exclude?

Is it more ethical to quit now or wait and practice exit or voice when senior civil servants are asked to break or bend the law (or their professional obligations)?

If those events come about, is it more ethical to remain in government service and practice “guerrilla government” (as Rosemary O’Leary discusses in her wonderful book)? Or act as a professional line of defense against political moral hazard (as Gary Miller and I argue in our recent book)?

Unconditional statements are always dangerous, but both populism and progressivism were reactions to the social disruption brought about by industrialization. Much of the architecture of American governance, which I believe has greatly benefited society over the past 100 years, came from progressivism. 

We may be in the early stages of a war between these two forces. The bureaus and their codes of ethics will represent the longstanding value of progressivism. This Administration will represent the forces of populism – perhaps Jacksonian, perhaps something more nefarious. 

Just because the President implements a code of ethics for his staff doesn’t mean the organization will be ethical – at least not in the sense that we’ve come to understand after many generations of post-progressivism governance. 

In a nutshell: what “code of ethics” would Steve Bannon want to implement?