Values-based approach: a guiding compass

Capt. Christopher Olson
435th Air Base Wing Legal Office

Over the past year, you may have noticed in communications from Secretary of the Air Force Dr. James G. Roche, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Gerald R. Murray, and other members of the Air Force senior leadership an increased number of references to our Air Force Core Values of “Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do.”

The emphasis on our Core Values reflects a subtle but important shift in how we approach our standards of conduct and ethical questions here in the Air Force.

Most federal agencies, including the Air Force, have compliance-based ethics programs that ensure government employees “follow the rules.”

Compliance-based systems tend to be based on law. They measure conduct and decisions against minimum standards set by statutes and regulations, but not necessarily against agency or government-wide values.

As a result, one of their shortcomings is the potential for leaders to abdicate tough ethical decisions to lawyers and ethics officials.
When this happens, ethics and the values of the organization can become disassociated from routine and not-so-routine decision making.

Within the private sector and in some smaller federal agencies, there now is movement toward a more values-oriented approach to ethical questions.

Secretary Roche and Chief Murray have approved this direction, and thus you will be seeing more of the Air Force Core Values in your ethics programs.

The goal of a values-based ethics program is an ethical culture where professional and personal decisions are based not just on statutes or regulations, but whether those decisions reflect the Air Force Core Values. They help to provide a guiding compass when there is no set rule.

The commitment of our most senior leaders to ethics and living the Core Values is evident from both their public pronouncements and how they conduct day-to-day business.

If the secretary is willing to make the Core Values such a prominent part of his agenda, your commander or supervisor should as well. The ultimate goal is to determine, when we are faced with tough questions, what is the right thing to do.
We should be proud that our Air Force leaders make that their focus, and it is something that we should strive to do as well.