Monday, May 14, 2007

Pentagon uses stories to provide ethical guidance

A Pentagon ethics official has found the perfect way to teach government employees about their thicket of ethical regulations. Tell stories.

That's right. Stephen Epstein, Director of the Pentagon's Standards of Conduct Office, has spent the past five years compiling a document called "The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure." It contains more than a hundred stories of bureaucratic misbehavior, including one in which a Marine lent his government credit card to a friend who made $13,000 of purchases with it.

Mr. Epstein and his Encyclopedia were the subjects of a front page article in today's Wall Street Journal (link - $$). According to the article,

Mr. Epstein says he was inspired to create the Encyclopedia by a Navy magazine that used humor to discuss aviation mishaps. He recalls an account of a fighter pilot who took off, only to realize that his plane's wings were still folded. "These were stories that got your attention and had a strong message, a parable," he says.

The Encyclopedia's users are equally sold on the concept that stories can educate better than rules:
Patrick Carney, assistant general counsel for ethics at the Federal Communications Commission, draws on the Encyclopedia for training and encourages his staff to read the document online because the "bite-size examples are more entertaining than reading the statutes" themselves, he says. In quarterly internal FCC "Ethicsgram" newsletters, Mr. Carney includes items from the Encyclopedia. "Everyone around town is looking for ways to get the word out on ethics, and Steve's material is often used," he says.
Mr. Epstein provides a good example to others trying to convey increasingly complex ethical principles to their employees. Rulesbooks are either far too detailed or too sketchy to provide guidance . Narrative expert Dave Snowden argues that documenting worst practice is more useful and effective than trying to instill "best practice" in any complex area.

Stephen Epstein would agree.

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