The Freakonomics of ‘Government Employees Gone Wild’

I’ve been on a podcast kick lately and stumbled on an old Freakonomics Radio episode highlighting the U.S. Department of Defense ethics guide, “The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure.”

Freakonomics interviews the publication’s editor, Jeff Green, senior attorney in DOD’s Standards of Conduct office, and its founding editor, Steve Epstein, who is now Boeing Company ethics and compliance chief counsel.

The episode, “Government Employees Gone Wild,” aired in July 2013, but it’s a refreshing approach at how DOD culls news stories, press releases and inspector general reports to highlight how federal employees cross ethical lines in the most egregious and sometimes humorous ways.

Interview excerpt:

DUBNER: Do either of you ever worry that this “Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure” could be read not so much as a set of cautionary tales but instead as a handbook for, oh there’s something I hadn’t thought of doing, there’s a way to wrangle a little extra money or influence of whatnot?

EPSTEIN: Well it’s funny, it’s a good point you raise there. I don’t see that because in most of these cases you’re seeing people who made very poor judgment calls. And they weren’t very successful in a criminal manner. So it would hardly be a handbook for how to be a successful criminal. As a matter of fact it’s more of a handbook of how to be an unsuccessful criminal.

DUBNER: The lessons of the “Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure” are pretty straightforward – and helpful whether you work in government or not. Don’t steal stuff from your office and sell it at home in a yard sale. Don’t spend all day in a bar if you’re supposed to be working. Don’t pay a kickback with hookers. And if you are going to do any of these things, don’t lie about it and then pretend you’re dead. That just won’t work. Now it’s impossible to say how successful the Encyclopedia has been, if at all, in preventing ethical failures. One thing it has going for it is that it tells stories. It doesn’t dwell on the rule that gets broken; it tells us who does what, to whom, and how, and sometimes why. Nobody wants to read a set of rules. But all of us like a good story – and we’ll remember it, too.


About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh, co-founder/CEO of ProudCity and co-host of the podcast, The Government We Need. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at


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