The Ethics Map: An Interview with Paula Gordon

By Paula Gordon and James Heichelbech

Published in Ethics Today, Volume 7, Number 2, Winter 2004

In her article, "The Ethics Map: A Map of the Range of Concerns Encompassed by 'Ethics and the Public Service'," Paula Gordon provides a map that distinguishes good from bad among specific behaviors familiar to us all, identifying some as ethically praiseworthy and others as not so praiseworthy, as well as some totally antithetical to ethics and the public service. Rather than simply inserting her article into this issue of Ethics Today, we wanted to find out more about the article from the author's perspective (the full article can be found at or a link can be found at her website at What follows is an informal Q&A session with Dr. Gordon about The Ethics Map.

Q: To begin, can you summarize The Ethics Map?

A: The Ethics Map is a typology or overview of the "universe" of three general categories of ethical behavior: "Value-Based Ethics," "Value Neutral or Relative Ethics," and "No Values".

"Value-Based Ethics": Behaviors that serve the public good and maximize the values of life, health, and freedom, values that can be seen as being reflected in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and the nation's founding documents. From my perspective, the roots of Values-Based Ethics can also be found in the democratic mainstream lineage of American public administration that includes Woodrow Wilson, Paul Appleby, and Dwight Waldo among many others.

"Value Neutral or Relative Ethics": Behaviors that reflect value neutrality and an indifference to Value-Based Ethics," and

"No Values": Behaviors that are at odds with the public good, and/or are implicitly or explicitly illegal or immoral.

While the map is primarily focused on those who serve in the public sector, it also has applicability to the behavior of those in the private sector. This is particularly the case among those in the private sector who strive to balance the goals of making a profit with the goal of contributing to the public good. Timberland, Whole Foods, and Tom's of Maine, constitute some examples.

A major purpose of the map is to compare and contrast behaviors across these three very general categories and to awaken understanding and insight that might serve as an impetus for nurturing and strengthening value-based behavior among those who serve in government.

Q: That's a good overview. The first question I have is philosophical. Many would limit descriptions of "behaviors" to objective, factual accounts of what a person does. You have a more robust way of looking at behavior, including motivations and consequences. What was the context in which you started to look at behavior this way?

A: I was in Washington at the time of Watergate and serving as a Council Member of the National Capital Area Council of ASPA. Soon after Watergate occurred, I also served as a member of the Ethics Committee of the National Council of ASPA. In these capacities, I was an early advocate of an ASPA mission statement that emphasized commitment to ethical behavior. I was also an advocate for in-service ethics training for those in the public service and for inclusion of ethics in the curricula of those who were preparing for professional careers in the public service. I advocated establishment of a government office that focused on ethics. The creation of the Office of Government Ethics in 1978 was a promising first step. Along with other ASPA members, I also advocated protective measures for whistleblowers and those who step forward to expose wrongdoing in government. This objective was realized at least in part by the establishment of the Merit Systems Protection Board in 1979.

Q: You tell us that in 1974 the U.S. Department of Justice incorporated the Map in training material for a series of workshops it held throughout the nation for local administrators. You also mention that the Map was used as the basis of a program you presented for the Training Bureau of the United States Civil Service Commission and a workshop that you conducted at the Federal Executive Institute. Can you tell us a little more about what the thinking was at that time concerning ethics in public service, ethics training in particular, and how that contributed to your development of the Ethics Map?

A: Influence came from a variety of quarters. I was strongly influenced by some giants in the field of public administration, practitioners as well as those who had crossed over into academia. Most notably, these included Don Stone, Roger Jones, and Dwight Waldo. I was extremely concerned that the education and training of those in or interested in entering the public service would include an emphasis on such fundamental pillars as character, integrity, and commitment to serving the public good. I was concerned that such education and training efforts might exclusively focus instead on obeying rules and regulations; avoiding conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts of interest; and learning about the penalties for failing to adhere to such rules, regulations, and guidelines.

I was also influenced strongly by the experience I had working in Washington. I had collaborated on a White Paper on the drug abuse problem for the Domestic Affairs Council in the White House when I first came to Washington. That was soon followed by a full time consultancy at the National Institute of Mental Health helping to coordinate Federal interagency drug abuse prevention efforts. I worked for the Federal Energy Office/Federal Energy Administration in 1974 at the height of the energy crisis. As a result of these early years of experience in Washington, I got a fairly full baptism into the widely varying ways that people in government can behave and the role that motivation, values, and a sense of responsibility can play. Owing to these and other experiences, including the academic grounding that I had received from several "New PA/Minnowbrook" professors with whom I had studied while a graduate student at Berkeley, I had become quite aware of the role that unhealthy and dysfunctional organizational culture can play in the functioning and effectiveness of government. The Ethics Map, in part, was a way of putting together what I had learned at Berkeley and what I had experienced first hand during my early years in Washington. The Ethics Map also can be seen as a further extrapolation of my dissertation, Public Administration in the Public Interest, completed at American University in 1975 (posted now in its entirety at

Q: How have you used the Map since then?

A: I have used The Ethics Map in training programs, workshops, panels, and numerous university courses, as well as courses for interns in Washington. I decided to update it when an editor of an ethics journal approached me at an ASPA Conference a few years ago. He told me how much he had liked The Ethics Map that I had sent him around twenty years earlier and invited me to submit an article on ethics to his publication. (Nice to have positive feedback, even after twenty years!) I updated and refined The Ethics Map and provided a context that addressed organizational culture issues and sent it off to him. The article did not survive the second round of the peer review process. This was not a total surprise to me. Sad to say, I have found little acceptance of such normative and avowedly idealistic treatments of ethics, let alone normative approaches to public administration in general, in mainstream academia today.

In my dissertation, I had examined the widespread pervasiveness of value neutral scientism in most of the "schools" of thought in the field of public administration through the mid-'70s. The same trends can be found today. The "Value Neutral or Relative Ethics" category of The Ethics Map focuses on behaviors that reflect value neutral scientism. Decades ago, students of public administration will recall that there had been a cleavage in the field with Dwight Waldo arguing on behalf of the mainstream values-based lineage of public administration and Herbert Simon taking the side of value neutral scientism. It would be a healthy thing if this discussion were to be revived. Sadly, at a symposium held in 2003 in Washington, D.C. on Dwight Waldo's work and legacy, none of the organizers or main presenters noted this essential part of Waldo's thought or legacy. I am hopeful that this fundamental debate will once again be revived. An article that I wrote entitled "Public Administration in the Public Interest: Thoughts About Public Administration Post September 11, 2001" ( also addressed the need for a revival of a focus on values in public administration and the possibility of such a revival in light of the impact of September 11 on the nation.

Q: I'd like to ask you a few questions about specific elements within the map. You include a number of elements that deal with character, such as lack of humility (e.g. "self-aggrandizing behavior). How has the judgment of character been received?

A: This is a very interesting question. If you are talking about how The Ethics Map and the idealistic value-based approach to public administration that it reflects seem to be received in academia, I would say, there has been only occasional positive feedback. This has come primarily from individuals at universities asking to use the articles in classes and from individuals in and out of academia who have read the article. The greatest positive response that I have valued the most over the years came from Don Stone and Roger Jones. The Ethics Map only became widely available in 2004 when I posted it on my website.

Q: You also talk about specific behaviors that we are all aware of, such as broom-closeting, playing games, evading/thwarting procedure. Do these behaviors reflect character flaws in public service?

A: In my view, these specific negative behaviors reflect bad habit patterns and unhealthy psychological tendencies that thrive in unhealthy organizational cultures. Such habit patterns and psychological tendencies contribute to the unhealthiness of an organizational culture. They reflect a dwindling or an absence of psychological health, maturity, integrity, character, a sense of service and responsibility, and a commitment to serving the public good. All of these are attributes that I would hope would be found in everyone who serves in government. These are attributes and qualities that the best schools of public administration and public affairs used to teach as a matter of course through exposure to practitioner faculty, exemplary leaders, seasoned faculty, real world case studies, and substantive course content rooted in the main stream lineage of the field of public administration.

The negative behaviors can reflect an absence of "on the ground", "front line" experience on the part of those involved in preparing or better equipping students or trainees for careers in public service. It is difficult at best for students or in-service trainees to learn about what it means to wield responsibility for the welfare or destinies of others, if not society as a whole, when they have little or no exposure to those who know first hand what it means to assume and wield responsibility and serve the public good.

Q: Still, many of our colleagues are reluctant to judge the character or motivations of others, and that probably includes a reluctance to criticize efforts toward training people for public service. Is that something that you think we need to become more comfortable with if we are to promote ethics in public service?

A: "Discernment" and "understanding" are words that I would use in lieu of "judgment". I think that what the field should foster is integrity, character, a commitment to service, and a sense of responsibility. If these are not present, no amount of regulations, rules, and guidelines will restore or help sustain the highest ideals that can and should be the hallmark of government service.

Q: Discernment and understanding do sound more positive, but you also talk about the need to remove people from public service when it is clear that their commitments are contrary to the purpose of public service. This seems to be the logical next step after identifying problems with behavior. Is that something you really think we can do? If so, what would it take? Do we need to formalize characterizations of certain behaviors as grounds for termination? Wouldn't this be a difficult task?

A: In my view, removing people should be a last resort. There are many other things that can be tried before having to resort to such a severe measure. Many people engage in such behavior simply out of habit or because it is the way they have learned to behave from poor role models they have known. In-service training at its best can provide a new basis for behavior and a new or renewed sense of purpose and mission. If the organizational culture that the individual is a part of is essentially an unhealthy one, then steps need to be taken to transform the culture along healthier lines. I address these concerns in my article on "Transforming and Leading Organizations" also at In that article I provide a perspective concerning how organizational culture can be transformed and what the transformation would look like. A portion of my dissertation also focuses on a theory of developmental change and change agentry based on Maslow's notion of "metamotivation." Metamotivation is an attribute of self-actualized individuals. Metamotivated individuals are mature and psychologically healthy individuals who are as concerned for the welfare of others as they are for their own welfare. In an ideal world, in a free and democratic society, metamotivation would be an essential characteristic of those who serve in government. I think such motivation was present at the nation's founding and continues to this day, though too often in a decidedly muted form.

Q: So far my questions have been focused on individual behaviors, but as you have indicated there are also a number of organizational behaviors in your Map, such as "disincentives for truthful and open communication." Is this an aspect that you consider vital to promoting ethical organizations, that we judge the character of the organization itself? Is this something that needs to happen before we begin to identify problematic behaviors among individuals?

A. I think that cultivating, nurturing, and sustaining healthy organizational cultures need to go hand in hand with nurturing, supporting, and sustaining healthy and ethical behavior in those in the public service and those intent on careers in the public service. Recognizing and addressing challenges presented by unhealthy organizational cultures should be uppermost in the minds of leaders, administrators, managers, and decisionmakers as well as educators and trainers. Unfortunately, too few individuals in such roles in our most troubled departments and agencies appear to have the understanding, knowledge, or skills needed to assume effective roles in transforming unhealthy organizational cultures into healthy ones.

Q: No doubt criticizing those individuals would not be particularly helpful. But the map also identifies praiseworthy behaviors as well. Is there potential using approaches to ethics that focus on behaviors to promote ethics in public service through praise, with a carrot instead of a stick, so to speak? Is this something we could formalize within training and recruiting efforts?

A: Ideally individuals who choose to serve in government will naturally act in value-based ways if they have the strength of character and courage to do so. It is possible to help encourage and sustain such behavior through example, education and training, and a supportive and healthy organizational culture. Those who possess the ideal attributes need neither carrots nor sticks to motivate them or influence their behavior. The likes of Don Stone and Roger Jones acted out of a basic core integrity. The behavior of such metamotivated individuals could never be manipulated in such a way. The challenge in recruiting individuals into government service in an ideal world would be to select them on the basis of their evident qualifications for service including integrity, maturity, a sense of responsibility, and a commitment to service. I know of no way of doing this except by having people involved in making the recruitment and hiring decisions who will act on the basis of their own well developed discernment, experience, intuition, understanding, knowledge, and commitment to serving the public good.

Thank you for the insights, Dr. Gordon. It's great to have a resource like The Ethics Map available to us and your comments on the background, motivations and application of the Map help us understand the subtleties of managing value in public service.

Thank you and thanks so much for the opportunity to share my views about The Ethics Map and ethics in the public service.


Paula Gordon is a writer, analyst, and consultant with a homeland security website at E-mail:




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