"The spirit of watchfulness": Public ethics as organizational learning

Gary Zajac, Louise K. Comfort

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Organizational learning from ethics failure in the public service is a form of organizational moral agency that promotes ethical public service. We draw upon three streams in the literature to develop an exploratory model of organizational ethics learning. First, we review literature concerning moral agency and learning by individuals and organizations to substantiate an organizational expression of moral agency. Second, we draw upon concepts from organizational theory and public administration to devise a typology of ethics failure in the public service. Finally, we synthesize the concept of moral agency and the typology of ethics failure with the dynamics of organizational learning to produce a model and a measure of organizational moral learning. We apply this model to a range of ethics problems in a comparative assessment of three county health departments in three states and report the results of this empirical study of organizational effort allocated to moral learning. We then assess these findings from organizational practice against the theoretical model of ethics learning and present recommendations for action and future research. These recommendations may guide practicing managers in coping with ethics failure in their own organizations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)541-569
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Public Administration Research and Theory
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1997

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Marketing


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