Shcherbinina Daria Andreevna
National Research University «Higher School of Economics»
4th year bachelor degree student of the Public Administration Department

Providing public services, many bureaucrats directly interact with population, i.e. represent the government. To ensure creation of a good impression of the government by civil servants, their communication culture should be studied and controlled. Therefore, this research explores a phenomenon of communication ethics and its role in creating the overall impression of obtained public services. Based on the analysis of various sources, the characteristics of ethical communicators in public organizations are summarized and defined.

Keywords: ethical civil servant, ethical communication, ethical communicator, governmental organizations, public services

Article reference:
Communication ethics in the organizations of Public Sector // Economics and innovations management. 2016. № 11 [Electronic journal]. URL:

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Delivery of public services[1] to population is one of the key responsibilities of every government. Trust to public institutions is affected by the experience people get as clients of public organizations. At the same time requirements to public services are constantly increasing. Introduction of key performance indicators (KPIs) in public sector changed the metrics and understanding of what good public service is. Together with efficiency, ethical issues came to the fore. The process was accelerated due to the spread of the Internet. People managed to fill in online questionnaires, publicly express their opinion on forums and find supporters among other unsatisfied clients. As a result, public organizations are gradually transforming from indifferent suppliers of services to client-oriented entities.

Communication heavily influences the general impression of the visit to public organization. Proper communication is a way to inexpensively increase satisfaction with services. As well as behavior, communication of public service workers should be ethical. It is not clear though who is an ethical communicator in public organizations. The information is not enough systemized and theory of communication ethics is developing as a separate study without any relation to public administration. Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine another field of study, where ethical communication and ethics per se would be more important.

The importance of ethical communication in public organizations

In the process of their work civil servants encounter different and sometimes unusual situations. Often laws are too vague or ambiguous. It would take too much time to reach the best possible solution in every particular case. Sometimes the “best” decision cannot be called “the best” if it takes too much time, slows down the process (e.g. public service provision) and makes the organization less efficient. As a result, public service workers opt for the second best[2] (a “satisfactory solution”), which is achieved by using discretionary power in situations where a gray area exists. The civil servant makes judgmental decision while still operating within the framework of the law. He or she just chooses how to apply guidelines and regulations to unusual cases as needed based on his expertise and experience.

It is important to understand the dangers of misuse and abuse of discretional power. Civil servants, as representatives of the government, need to be conscious of how they are portrayed by the population. Their responsibilities often require direct contact with the population, which makes their conveyed image of great importance. People judge the government not only by major political decisions. They also judge by the degree to which the quality of their life is improved or decreases. People often care more than not whether institutions function well and whether the government successfully provides services. Therefore, the judgments about the government and its services are often based on people’s experiences with civil servants. I the bureaucrat is rude, he creates a bad image of the public organization and, consequently, of the government’s work. Therefore, those who obtain discretionary administrative power should be highly responsible, sensible, and rational.

The “Australian Public Service (APS) Values and Code of Conduct” is one of the most complete and explanatory Codes of Conduct for public servers. It emphasizes the importance of the relationship with the public for any government organization:

“2.1.1 Trust in government and a nation’s democratic institutions is significantly influenced by the experience of business and the public as clients of the public service.” [2, p.9]

The APS Code of Conduct calls to deliver public services in a more citizen oriented and friendly manner. It also reminds to take into consideration the interests of the business and community when designing and delivering services. Section two of the document is devoted to the relationship with the public, where values, dress code recommendations and ethical requirements are listed. They are meant to help civil servants to choose the proper line of behavior when dealing with visitors. The uniqueness of the act is also in admitting the existence of “difficult” visitors. The APS Code of Conduct recommends public servers to remain positive and calm when encountering aggressive or abusive customers.

In Ireland the Civil Service Code of Standards and Behavior was designed by an independent organization called Standards in Public Office Commission. Like in the APS Code, a separate section (№8) explains how civil servants should deal with the public. [7, p.12] In Russia the 18th article of the Federal Act № 79 “About The State Civil Service in Russian Federation” [15] provides the list of requirements and standards for civil servants. Many requirements (18.1.9-14) control the relationship with the public. In addition to afore mentioned, the human resources departments of public organizations usually also have their own internal codes of behavior, manuals and trainings.

As it can be discerned, it is hard to ignore or overlook the important role of direct communication with the population in public sector organizations. Proper communication increases the respect to and legitimacy of the government making citizens more satisfied and rapport. On the other hand, rude intonations or disrespectful behavior detrimentally influences the impression of communication and hence the public organization. The law punishes unethical behavior, but not unethical communication. In response to this problem, Ethical Codes are usually created. As mentioned before, they indicate proper and adequate characteristics of ethical communicators.

Essence and specifics of ethical communication

The key notion of this research is ethics, the philosophical study of morality [5, p.284]. This definition gives just a general understanding of ethics. Deeper understanding of ethics is needed to describe ethical communicators in public organizations, their qualities, and the distinction of those qualities across Russian and Dutch public organizations. J. Deigh in The Cambridge dictionary of Philosophy [5, p.284] mentions at least six fields of study related to ethics: the general study of goodness, the general study of right action, applied ethics, metaethics, moral psychology, and the metaethics of moral psychology. We will look at communication ethics through the first two fields, as according to J.Deigh and other scholars, they are the two main constituents of ethic.

Ethics as the “general study of right action” looks for moral principles that should govern people’s choices and pursuits.  Principles of ethical public administration are clearly defined and explained in textbooks. This research instead aims to define ethical principles related to civil servants’ work, specifically in communication with the population. Ethics as the “general study of goodness” tries to define what ends people as rational human beings should choose and pursue. Important role of “goodness” in communication ethics and the knowledge of the “desirable result” (provision of quality services) encourage us to use the second understanding of ethics as well. The absence of strict borders between the two constituents makes it possible to include both of them in the current research.

The relationship between ethics and communication has long history, It can be even traced back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. [4, p.28] In his work Aristotle does not use the term “communication ethics”, but calls communication a fundamental process of ethics, which reveals the mechanism of the formation of man as an individual. This formation happens by means of interpersonal and polis communication. The communicative nature of the human’s formation is explained by the high influence of polis (i.e. a state or a society) and strong links to it. [13, p.1-2]

The catalyst for the early work on communication ethics at a national level can be attributed to the former vice president of the Speech Communication association[3] (SCA), Kenneth Andersen. In 1983, he announced “Communication Ethics and Values” as the topic for the SCA annual convention for that year. As the president of CSA in 1984, he helped establish the importance of communication ethics studies. The first sign of its importance was seen during his presidential address to the organization. His speech was called “A code of ethics for speech communication”. He established a series of ethical standards and moral articles, which set foundation as an ethical guide for individuals as they communicate. [1, p.2] At his address, he offered six articles (codes) of ethical communication in a hierarchical order based on importance. Generally speaking it was a set of instructions, which professional ethical communicators should follow.

A year later The Communication Ethics Commission of SCA was established. This was the beginning of the acknowledgement of the Communication Ethics and its significance as a separate field of study. Subsequently many prominent scholars of the time associated with the commission, contributing to unify the diverse definitions and understandings of the ethics; consequently contributing to groundwork and early framework communication ethics.

For instance, Vernon Jensen promoted the good of tension. As an advocate of multiplicity of goods, he emphasized that people might have different understandings of “good” and “ethical”. Therefore, the good of choice should be protected and promoted. Being a supporter of “mature” communication ethics and moral reasoning, he suggested developing a set of ethical guidelines to be used when facing ethical dilemmas. However, Jensen’s studies were devoted not to communication ethics, but to ethical issues arising in different kinds of communication. [8, p.178]

The biggest contribution to the definition of communication ethics belongs to Richard L. Johannesen. His book “Ethics in Human Communication” provides a wide range of views on communication ethics from different perspectives. Arnett et al. call his book “an encyclopedic tradition of human communication ethics”. [4, p.29] However, R.L. Johannesen himself interchangeably uses terms “communication ethics” and “ rhetorical ethics”. In both cases, he suggests that communicators are trying to influence others. [3, p.38] In other words, Johannesen believe communicators use communicative means to reach the desirable ends. With regards to manipulation, ethics becomes of a great importance. According to him ethical communicator ought to exercise his/her freedom of speech given to him/her in a responsible way. Like V.Jensen, R.L. Johannesen cares about ethical decision-making under time constraints. He also suggests developing ethical character, which drives ethical or unethical behavior in critical situations. [3, p.41]

A different point of view can be obtained from Josina M. Makau. She revolutionized the understanding of argument and ethical communication by emphasizing the cooperative nature of interaction. From her standpoint, communication is not a one-sided flow of information for the purpose of manipulating other people. It is rather a deliberation with someone else who might have a different perspective. The important thing to note is that this deliberation should be ethical (i.e. respectful, cooperative, caring, and attentive) towards other communicators. Unlike Johannesen, Makau believes that communication is not only about rhetoric; it’s about every act of interaction with other people. “Even decision to smile when encountering a stranger has an ethical dimension”. [3, p.72] The decision to smile or not is a choice, which reflects the values of the communicator and has effects and consequences to the person whom they are communicating with. While Johannesen and Jensen insist on prepared ethical guidelines, Makau promotes the good of heart, i.e. the dialogic search of values (instead of a prepared set of values) with recognition of their diversity. [4, p.31] Her belief in historical “contextual situatedness” of values is partly explained by the vulnerability from potential corporate control of information when universal values are misused by organizations. [3, p.76] Instead of adhering to universal values or principles the ethical communicators should open their hearts to each other in order to overcome the differences, to diminish barriers and to work together serving the public good. [3, p.79]

As it can be seen, different scholars promote different definition of “good” and consequently have different views on what communication ethics is and/or should be. Arnett et al. (reference on the book) provide a more generalized definition. According to their book,  “communication ethics is the recognition that we take a given philosophy of communication (an understanding of “good”, and apply it in interaction with others”. [4, p.32] This definition corresponds to the views of mentioned scholars, but is more generalized, as it does not specify any certain philosophy or good to be promoted. For instance, in public service organizations the promoted definition of “good” could be the delivery of high quality public services.

In some cases “good” can be a goal at the same time. Presence of certain goals and tasks is the key feature of business communication according to Kibanov et al. [10]. Business communication is based on communicative culture – a set of skills, abilities and knowledge in the sphere of interaction, which allows individuals to establish psychological contact with business partners, achieve accurate perception and understanding in the process of communication, and to direct the behavior of business partners to a desired result. Kibanov et al. argue that politeness, sense of tact, modesty, accuracy, prevenance and attentiveness are the generally accepted ethical requirements for ethical business communication. These requirements are inextricably linked with the recognition of the uniqueness and the value of each person. [10, p.93]

Communication ethics in public organizations

Another leading communication ethics scholar is Chesebro J.W., a distinguished Professor of Telecommunications. In 1969 he published his work [6], in which he defined communication ethics and offered ethical standards in communication. He was the first scholar who conceptualized views on communication ethics into five new and distinctive approaches: 1) democratic, 2) universal-humanitarian, 3) dialogic, 4) procedural (standardized), and 5) contextual communication ethics. [4, p.43] The first, associates ethical communication with promoting democratic government intended ideas, customs, and rights. The second approach implies that ethical communication helps develop and expand opportunities for the individual. Utilitarians seek to attain the “greatest good for the greatest number of people”. [4, p.48] The third group partly aligns with the democratic approach, but is more closely related to freedom of speech than to political structure. The aim of ethical communication here is to enhance communication itself.

A substantial group of writers adhere to the fourth approach, the idea that communication ethics guidelines should exist.  This approach focuses on the means used to achieve desirable results. Specific codes, procedures and standards are used as these means. The fifth approach is opposing to the fourth. Contextual communication ethics avoids establishment of universal standards and promotes the good of a particular situation or context. Even though the last two approaches seem to be contradicting to each other, we assume that ethical communication with population in public organization is both standardized and contextual. The following logic supports this point of view. (Alternatively you can leave the sentence but you should also add a sentence why you are focusing in the last two)

As mentioned before, most of the public organizations nowadays have their own codes of ethics. These codes ensure agreement on the ways to achieve desirable goals and frame communication both conceptually and behaviorally. They also make civil servants’ behavior more predictable, objective and consequently legitimate. Standardized approaches to communication have a lot in common with R. Kagan’s legal model [9] of decision-making. Even though decision-making is just a part of communication between public service workers and the population, it has a great influence on the experience and impression of the communicative part of the visit.  From this perspective, Kagan’s legal model explicitly describes the benefits of ethical communication[4].  According to this model, formal control is needed to avoid arbitrariness and corruption of civil servants in communication and decision-making. In the presence of this control, citizens know that everyone is treated in the same way, decision-making and communication processes follow standard procedures, and, if needed, judicial redress is possible.

The Code of Ethics of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is explicit and unrelated to any certain activity (unlike NCA, whose Code of Ethics is mostly devoted to scholars and teachers) or country. According to IABC, a professional communicator is honest (1), law obedient (2), promotes freedom of speech (3), protects confidential information (4) and does not use it for personal interests (5). A professional communicator operates only based on accurate information (6), respects the labor of others and cites their sources (7).  Ethical communicator is also attentive and understanding towards different cultures, values or beliefs (8), he/she avoids corruption (9) and does not guarantee results beyond his/her power (10).

Not all listed characteristics can be applied to public service communicators. For instance, other institutions are responsible for ensuring freedom of speech. References to sources in public service are more related to accuracy of information (6) rather than to the respect for property rights. The rest of the principles are similar to the ones listed in national codes of ethics for civil servants and are used in the current research.

Contextual communication ethics opposes the arguments listed above and develops the idea of protecting and promoting the good of a particular context. This approach justifies usage of different standards of communication for different audiences, cultures and situations. [4, p.51] Contextual communication ethics is meant to identify the appropriate goods for particular cases.

Ronald C. Arnett et al. argue that it is of the greatest importance for people to find special protection and promotion of their communicative practices. [4, p.3] Goods are often associated with what is right for a person to be or to do. The problem relies in that there is no single definition of “good” acceptable for everybody. The definition depends on variables such as periods of time, events, parties, and simply on personal views. Some goods may even come into conflict with one another. As an example, multitasking might be perceived to be good by a civil servant or his supervisor, but unacceptable by the citizen, who might prefer more single-task focus approach.

Differing views of good communication ethics can serves as a useful tool that helps avoid possible fragmentation. The book “Communication ethics literacy” by Ronald C. Arnett et al. states that “learning about goods of self and others” as the initial requirement in communication ethics. [4, p.4] Like Makau, the authors of the book notice that goods of others do not have to be assisted, but instead it should be acknowledged and respected for the success of communication process. R.C. Arnett et al. noticed that in response to changing circumstances, communicative means of protecting and promoting certain goods should adjust as well. Such evolution of communication ethics approaches helps what we consider to be good to endure throughout time. Consequently, communication ethics does not live in codes or principles. It lives in the willingness of communicators to protect and promote “goods”.

It would be unimaginable to think that many public organizations would not follow any communication ethics standards but they do. However, not all members of the organization may follow or apply the standards at the same level. Some public service workers occupy job roles and positions, which demand higher level of discretion and contextual communication ethics than just merely following standard procedures. M. Lipsky calls such civil servants “street-level bureaucrats”. [11] In a way, they poses higher authority independence and discretionary freedom from the organization to interpret policy. [11, p.3] Lipsky explains such discretion by difficult work conditions encountered by public service workers in the process of execution of their work. For instance, they often do not have explicit direction or adequate resources to systematically respond to the specific circumstances created by the tasks they are asked to perform. This deficiency includes but is not limited to the lack of civil servants, time, training, or precedents in the law that would prescribe solutions to each particular case. Goals faced by the street-level bureaucrats are also often ambiguous and conflicting as different conflicting reference groups (colleagues, clients and the society as a whole) have different expectations from the street-level bureaucrat’s role. Thus, client-centered goals might conflict with organization-centered (efficiency) or social engineering (equal attitude to everybody) goals. An example is when a client wants his/her case to be considered with favoritism or with “extra” care to details.

What is more, clients of public organizations are often involuntary clients.  Often public organizations have an inherent monopoly of certain public services. This along with stereotyping of civil servants may make citizens reluctant to cooperate when communicating with civil servants. As a result civil servants may lack of incentives or willingness to follow the code of conduct and communicate ethically. Influence by performance metrics is another important reason why public service workers practice substantial freedom while in the process of their work. They often have to balance between achieving client’s, social and organizational goals. They often ought to choose which goal needs more support and is more important to them.

R.A. Kagan also claims that administrative discretion is inevitable for civil servants due to the nature of their position in public organizations (direct contact with population), moral aspects of many rules, a lack of logically compelling relation between the vaguely formulated laws and the reality to which they have to be applied. In response to these problems Kagan developed an expert model [9, p.13-14]. According to this model, street-level bureaucrats use their experience and discretion to respond to the situation or to do the best for the client and the society as a whole.

Thus combining two approaches to communication ethics of public service workers we may conclude that codes and standards are important in their work as long as they are not taken too legalistically and do not restrain the ability to promote discussion about individual goods.  This means that to the principles mentioned earlier we can add sympathy and personal involvement as characteristics of ethical communication with citizens.

Finally, another important feature of ethical business communicator is etiquette. Being an external manifestation of ethics, etiquette is important in business communication environment. Public administration, including provision of public services, is an environment with special ethical demands. Courtesy and dress code can be considered as two additional characteristics of ethical communicator in public organizations. The first is a key factor in creating a first good impression of the visit and consequently the public organization. The second is explained by the facts that people often judge by appearance. However public organizations are becoming more culturally open-minded. As a result, there is an increase in opinion towards how civil servants should look.

Characteristics of the ethical communicator in public organizations

Based on the analysis of existing literature an ethical communicator in public organizations can finally be defined. An ethical communicator is a public service worker who understands the desirable end (good) for the organization (namely, the provision of quality public services), recognizes the organizational philosophy of communication with population and applies ethical characteristics of a professional communicator while interacting with the citizens for achievement of the organizational goal (the desirable end). These characteristics are:

  1. Accuracy – providing precise and correct information.
  2.  Prevenance – courteous anticipation of the desires or needs of others. [14]
  3. Sympathy – sensitivity to someone’s situation, expression of understanding to the case; absence of indifference towards the other person.
  4. Dress code – adherence to a set of rules about what clothing may and may not be worn.
  5. Courtesy – treating people in a friendly, nice manner.
  6. Personal involvement – taking special care of someone (the visitor in this case) without intervention of others.
  7. Sense of tact – being respectful, demonstrating consideration in dealing with others and avoiding giving them offense.
  8. Modesty – having an unexaggerated estimate of one’s qualities and abilities; freedom from presumption, arrogance or pride. [12]
  9. Representation of the organization – ensuring positive overall impression of the communication. It is important because civil servants represent the government, creating an overall impression about its work.
  10. Honesty – telling the truth.
  11. Efficiency – achievement of maximum productivity with minimum combination of wasted effort and expense.
  12. Law and code of ethics obedience.
  13. Protection of confidential information.
  14. Avoidance of corruption.


This research explored the phenomenon of communication ethics and its role in provision of public services. Civil servants are representatives of the government while providing public services; what is more, they may use discretionary power in certain situations while interacting with the population. To ensure creation of a good impression of the government by civil servants, their communication culture should be studied and controlled.

This work is an attempt to summarize and define characteristics of ethical communicators in public organizations based on the analysis of various literatures. The author tried to accumulate existing knowledge about ethical communication in public sector. The paper can contribute to the understudied problem of communication ethics with population in public organizations

[1] Public services in this research are limited to the documents received in public organizations. We do not consider public transportation, healthcare, education, public safety etc.

[2] R. Lipsey’s and K. Lancaster’s theory of the second best.

[3] SCA is a non-profit organization aiming at the promotion of Communication as a discipline. It was founded in 1914. The organization is currently called as the National Communication Association (NCA).

[4] Kagan’s legal and expert models (Kagan, 1978) are originally decision-making models. Since the decision-making is an important way of communication, it is possible to apply his model to the research.

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