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Searching for honor: trends in federal acquisition ethics; Has there been a change in the ethical beliefs and attitudes among CPCMs over the past 15 years? Survey says ...

Reports of ethics failures in the public sector are frequently in the news, despite numerous laws and codes of conduct that define acceptable behavior. However, there is little discussion or research about the factors that actually affect ethics in public service or the acquisition arena or whether there are any trends in perceptions or behavior. Thus, acquisition personnel at all levels are missing key information as they endeavor to operate in an honorable manner.


To address this lack of information, a Web-based survey of certified professional contract managers (CPCMs) was conducted in April 2005, and the responses were compared to the results from the same survey of CPCMs conducted in 1990. The questionnaire consisted of 26 questions, and a conservative statistical approach was used to determine how CPCMs felt in 2005, as compared to the 1990s. The 2005 survey included demographic questions that enabled an analysis of subgroups and also encouraged written responses.

The State of Ethics

In 1990, only 30 percent of the respondents believed Congress was doing a good job of establishing clear expectations; in 2005, that number rose to 60 percent. For 2005, executive-level contracts professionals and any respondents working in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area (Maryland, Virginia, and D.C.) were much more positive in this regard than the others. Even so, more than 50 percent of the 2005 respondents were concerned about the adequacy of ethics rules, as opposed to those in 1990, which was only 25 percent. Responses indicate that there has been some progress in making the ethics rules more clear, but they are still too complex. CPCMs are less sure now about who should regulate ethics (government or industry) than in 1990, but in any case, the 2005 executive-level CPCMs felt strongly that there is too much regulation.

Eighty percent of both groups believed that defense contractors are ethical most of the time and that the most important ethics concepts do not change. Three-quarters of both groups felt that it is possible that imposed codes are not necessarily based on true ethical behavior. Curiously, CPCMs employed by government contractors and those working outside the Washington, D.C., area were much less sure about this than other respondents.

The 2005 survey asked for examples of when there could be a difference between codes and true ethical behavior: nearly 60 percent of the respondents provided examples. In summary, they wrote that

(1) Loopholes are often blatantly abused, as people hide behind the "letter of the law";

(2) Rule-makers often excuse themselves from the standards they impose on others; and

(3) Codes cannot cover everything, yet they create a false sense of honor.

Cracking the Codes

There was virtually no change in the respondents' views between 1990 and 2005 with respect to the content and form of ethics codes. CPCMs still felt that the factors affecting government ethics were not very different from the commercial business world. Further, Congress should change its focus from writing a comprehensive code to training in ethical decision-making. Government employees should be held to the same ethics standards in their private lives as in their public lives, according to both groups. Today, there is a stronger desire for limitations on those involved in government spending than government employees who were not and that those involved with defense procurement in particular should have a few additional limitations.


Factors Affecting Ethics

Respondents were asked to select from the list shown below the factors that have an impact on ethics from two perspectives--what has affected ethics and what should affect ethics in the government. Then, they were asked to select which factors affected government contractors.

Tables 2-3 on page 16 show the top four responses in each category.

During the 15 years between the two surveys, CPCMs did not change their views on what factors actually affect government ethics, but the strength of their beliefs did change somewhat. They believed more strongly in 1990 than in 2005 that individual beliefs were the most important factor and universal concepts were second. Though still third, the 2005 group believed media influence was stronger than in 1990. As to what should influence government ethics, the 2005 group felt more strongly that universal concepts should be the most important factors and chose good governance as what should be the second most important. The 1990 group chose individual beliefs as second. For third place, the two groups inverted their choices: the 2005 choice was individual beliefs; good governance was the 1990 choice.

Turning to contractor ethics, the 15 years did have more of an effect on the views of the CPCMs. Individual beliefs are still the most important factor, but media coverage rose from fourth to second in influence, scoring very closely to universal concepts and the immediate situation. Looking to what should be affecting contractor ethics, the views of CPCMs as to which factors are most important did not change over the 15 years, although the strength of the belief did. Universal concepts and individual beliefs still are the top two with the same relative strength. The 2005 group felt much more strongly that good governance should be a key factor.

Indeed, it is clear that CPCMs have an enduring desire for Congress and the administration to have a strong influence on ethics--but Congress and the administration historically do not rise to this expected level. Neither the good governance by Congress nor the president and administration factors made the top four factors on the "have" list, but both were on the "should" list. Further, it appears that what factors affect government ethics has not changed during the past 15 years. The desires of the 1990 group (the "should be" list) have not come to pass, according to the 2005 respondents (the "actual" list), while the enduring influence of the media and situational ethics remains a concern.

Finally, the 2005 group was asked to explain under what conditions the relative importance of ethics concepts and factors might change; 60 percent provided written examples. In summary, the comments were that

(1) The media has great influence (either good or bad),

(2) The example set by political and business leaders has a huge influence, and

(3) The fundamental ideals of ethics do not change.


The purpose of the research was to determine whether there had been a change in the ethical beliefs and attitudes among CPCMs over the past 15 years. Comparing the responses between the 1990 and 2005 groups, it appears that the views of the CPCMs have changed in only a few areas. The 2005 group agreed with the 1990 group, in that they

* Want both the Congress and the administration to influence ethics more than they have,

* Have a high level of skepticism as to the moral validity of some of the standards set by Congress and the administration,

* Believe that federal acquisition ethics should not be very different from corresponding practices in the commercial world,

* Want less formal control and more training in ethical decision-making,

* Believe the underlying concepts of ethics and morals are stable over time, and

* Feel the imposed standards are not as clear as they should be.

The 2005 group differed from the 1990 group in its concern for the adequacy of ethics rules and its belief that Congress is doing a better job with respect to setting ethics expectations.

The media most likely will continue to publish headlines about ethics failures among federal acquisition personnel, thereby degrading the reputation of everyone in the federal sector. Yet, the search for honor among contracts professionals presses onward. This research may help this endeavor, as it provides information and analysis that was previously unavailable. Although CPCMs reported that there is still much improvement needed in the ethics climate, there is a faint sense of hope in Congress doing a better job than it was 15 years ago.

About the Author

JAMES D. ALSTOTT, CPCM, FELLOW, is a contracts manager at Raytheon Technical Services Company in Indiana. He is a member of the NCMA Indianapolis Chapter. Send comments on this article to
Key for Tables: Factor Choices

Bur  Bureaucrats
Gov  Good Governance by Congress
Pwr  Government Power Over Its Employees
Ind  Individual Beliefs
Med  Media Coverage
Opi  Opinion Polls
Pre  President and Administration
Pol  Self-Interest of Politicians
Sit  The Immediate Situation
Uni  Universal Ethical Concepts

Table 1.

Factors Affecting Federal Acquisition Ethics--Government

     Have Affected          Should Affect
  1990        2005        1990        2005
%   Factor  %   Factor  %   Factor  %   Factor

72  Ind     77  Ind     78  Uni     88  Uni
63  Uni     65  Uni     72  Ind     82  Gov
48  Med     58  Med     67  Gov     79  Ind
48  Sit     55  Sit     57  Pre     67  Pre

Table 2.

Factors Affecting Federal Acquisition Ethics--Contractor

     Have Affected          Should Affect
  1990        2005        1990        2005
%   Factor  %   Factor  %   Factor  %   Factor

76  Ind     75  Ind     80  Uni     87  Uni
69  Uni     68  Med     78  Ind     80  Ind
63  Sit     64  Uni     59  Gov     80  Gov
56  Med     62  Sit     52  Pre     59  Pre

Table 3.
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Alstott, James D.
Publication:Contract Management
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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