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A few months ago, I met a young woman recently hired by the Environmental Protection Agency. I asked her what it was like to work for an organization embroiled in political controversy.

“I really don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t been there long enough.”

It was a tactful response.

Richard Kyte mug

Richard Kyte

She went on to describe the work she was doing, monitoring water quality and assessing human health risks. She had graduated from college, completed a research internship and was looking forward to a career in public service. She was passionate about her work, evident from the way she discussed the health risks to children posed by lead and other contaminants in drinking water.

Like many young people, she was a little naïve, perhaps, but her enthusiasm was contagious. She had worked hard to acquire knowledge and a set of useful skills. She was going to use that knowledge and those skills to help others. She reminded me of many of my college students.

I wonder how things are working out for her now.

Scott Pruitt, director of the EPA, is under fire for several decisions that call his judgment and integrity into question: renting an apartment from a lobbyist; lavish office spending; giving huge pay raises to friends; increasing his security detail; traveling by first class; demoting officials who questioned his conduct; firing a security officer who refused to use sirens to speed through Washington traffic.

The question is: How important are those decisions? Do they really matter?

Pruitt’s defenders claim the criticisms are overblown: The rent he paid for the apartment was reasonable, the first-class travel and increased security were justified in light of threats, and his other expenditures are minuscule in comparison to the cuts he is making to the agency’s $8 billion annual budget.

Mainly, however, they defend him because he is carrying out President Donald Trump’s agenda: rolling back far-reaching environmental regulations put in place during the Obama administration.

That, of course, is what he was hired to do. Pruitt has arguably been the most capable of Trump’s cabinet appointees, which is, in large measure, why he is under such scrutiny from the opposition.

But since when did doing one’s job, even in the face of stiff opposition, justify ethical lapses?

We put ethics rules in place to prevent officials from abusing their power, but such rules have limited efficacy. That is because we routinely let leaders get away with things as long as they are giving us something we want.

Chris Stirewalt, politics editor for Fox News Channel, thinks that is shortsighted. “Ethical conduct matters more than policies,” he wrote, regarding the Pruitt controversy. “If we continue to degrade the trust and confidence that American’s have in our government and institutions, people will come to believe that there is no virtue left among their leaders.”

Some would argue that is precisely the condition we are in now. Those who identify with both ends of the political spectrum are especially likely to see things that way. Unfortunately, they are also the loudest voices on cable and social media.

But I think most Americans are not that cynical. We care about our government. We want our agencies to be effective at carrying out their responsibilities. We understand that they will undergo course corrections when new administrations come into power. We accept that, and we accept the fact that we will sometimes disagree with the agencies’ policies.

Still, we expect those in charge of our agencies to be honest, fair and, above all, committed to serving the American public. We want them to be servants first and to put their personal interests aside for the sake of the common good.

Surprisingly, perhaps, private companies understand this better than government agencies.

Year after year, Fortune Magazine’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For is dominated by companies that practice servant leadership.

In a servant-led organization, power is used responsibly in service of some common goal. In a corrupt organization, power is used to serve the leaders.

One piece of advice I give college seniors is, if possible, to make sure their first significant job is with a servant-led organization. Such organizations put an emphasis on developing young employees. They set high expectations connected to their mission, and they take care that employees have the resources and support to meet those expectations.

Is it too much to ask that our government agencies be good places for people to work, that they put their mission and culture ahead of the leader’s ego?

Would you want your son or daughter to work for a government agency like the EPA, the Veterans Administration or the Internal Revenue Service? Do you think they would find the work fulfilling, would they grow as people, would they have an experience of working in an ethical culture?

If the answer is “no,” we have only ourselves to blame. After all, we are the ones putting their leaders in place.

Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University. He also is a community member of the La Crosse Tribune editorial board.

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(17) comments

johnnybragatti

We currently have the most inept president in the history of the U.S.A.
and just as dang soon as he is taken out, the country may be saved.
The Repubicks will do it.
The sooner-the greater.

oldhomey

Bravo. Well said. I would also like to make the point that, despite the tendency on social media and in public forums to belittle the service of the people who staff government agencies as inept and/or goldbricking, in my lifetime of well more than 70 years, I have found people working in government on the whole competent, polite, intelligent and eager to be of service. And no, I am not a retired government bureaucrat. I have never worked for any government or public agency of any kind. I just feel that the constant harping of the right-wing that "the government is the problem" is an extremely dangerous and counterproductive attitude to be trying to instill in the public mind. Of course there are always examples of gold-brickers, inept people and even corrupt operators to be found in government, just as there are in all walks of life. I would say our "swamp-draining" president and many of those he has installed in his administration are prime examples of the latter. They should be removed, and they will be removed.

Rick Czeczok

First time I ever read anyone being a complete hypocrite, in the same paragraph. Not a very smart wise old man. Only says good things about the Liberal party. Go away, as your way of thinking is the problem with society. One sided, and can't see beyond your face. Grandmother said people like you had "stinky brains".

kingman10

Wow did Rick ever put Homey in his place. Rick never mentioned facts or figures to disprove homey, just used words like "stinky brains" and hypocrite and go away! How can you argue against such intelligence, or lack there of. I guess grandmother would of been proud of you Rick. Just call people names when you don't like what they say, be a bully, and never ever open your mind to something new or useful, like critical thinking skills or comprehension skills. Stay they way you are as the world passes you by Rick, your bitterness and sarcasm will get you no where.

Rick Czeczok

Oh look big brother comes in to help the liberal gang (as homey called them). Didn't see that coming HA! Right from the democratic new strategy book. It's not working.....
What a joke you guys are.....

oldhomey

"stinky brain"???? How can I EVER show my face in public again! You meanie you, Ricky! Am not! Am not! Am not! I'm gonna tell teacher that you are using bad words and names on the playground!

Rick Czeczok

HAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHHA

oldhomey

Gosh, Ricky, I always try when I can to lend a little humor to my comments, but I didn't realize my 10:22pm post was THAT funny. Do you think I should maybe try selling jokes to Steven Colbert or SNL? Or maybe try some stand up routines? A little extra income in retirement wouldn't hurt at all. I am so happy that I passed your smell test. Thanks for the encouragement.

Cassandra2

Except our resident Russian bot troll's grandmother said "stinky brains" as "вонючий мозг".

Climatehoax

How ironic, the swamp draning president was elected because of the actions of a liberal progressive for eight years because he was inept, and put the tax paying supporter of this country in peril because of his racism, lawlessness, and generally acting like a dog with its tail between its legs as world leadership is concerned

kingman10

oh spoken with such irrationality hoaxer. As you are still focused on Hillary or Obama, your arguments are then invalid. The swamp you refer to is now filled with the most corruption it has ever been, since the Nixon years. Talk about lawlessness, how many of Obama's administration were indicted or convicted of crimes. Now compare that with Trump's. Of course reality matters not to the right wing nuts, only emotion. Yes Obama was the most racist ever, but only in your twisted little mind. What about the birther issue hoaxer, do you think Obama was born in the US? Why or why not?

Climatehoax

Was trump elected because of the stellar job obama did? Was trump elected because Hillary was going to carry on the same as obama? Obama and Hillary put trump into office, so they are very relevant in a discussion about trump. It’s the only god thing that became of Obama’s presdency.

kingman10

oh wow hoaxer, here I thought the electoral college put Trump in office. Remember who won the popular vote? But we don't live in a democracy but in a throw back of the 18th century that puts losers in office.

Rick Czeczok

Oh now Homey is trying new strategy, nothing like the old homey. Dem party has put a note out to change strategy as the old one was not working (failing poles). Old homey is showing his cards as to who he really is. Dem worker..... Now we need king and some others to show next. So obvious from the "GANG as they call themselves".

Cassandra2

Czkzrykzc wants the "poles" to fail so Russia can send in troops.

kingman10

oh you got it all wrong rick the russian bot. Buggs said a long time ago homey is a cia operative. There can be no doubt about it. So don't you come up with another for homey, buggs is never wrong!

oldhomey

C'mon, Ricky. Bring out your sense of humor again and show us how much you appreciated Cassandra's well-placed gibe at 9:13am with some more of your graphically maniacal printed laughter.

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