This is a blog that seeks to explain Philippine Public Administration from the point of view of a teenage political scientist from the University of the Philippines.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Relationship Between Ethics and Public Administration

Prior to the explosion of interest witnessed in the 1990’s, public sector ethics have basically been discussed in a generalized and rather theoretical manner, illustrated with anecdotal examples. Explanations for why a public employee acts in a particular way can be more satisfying when viewed in light of the demands implicit when attempting to solve individual dilemmas in a context of moral relativism while serving multiple publics.

For over six hundred years until the early twentieth century, codes of conduct were a very popular form of literature. Such books and pamphlets taught people how to observe social stratification when greeting someone, how to dress, how to eat, which fork to pick up, and so forth. It was the literature of etiquette, and by the 19th century etiquette had become very elaborate indeed

As Louis Gawthrop said, an ethics of civility can be viewed as a highly structured, mechanistic ethics that places democratic values primarily in a negative framework designed to insure scrupulous adherence to the law and the maintenance of order.

Public administrators uniformly lament the increasing number of impediments that limit an administrators’ ability to promote efficient and effective administration of governmental services. They cite the rapid proliferation of regulations, the emergence of more participative management styles, court-mandated due process requirements, various forms of citizen participation, laborious bidding and procurement procedures, making decisions based on what "the lawyers and/or the politicians will say", just to mention some of the more obvious barriers to efficient management.

Despite so many barriers to the efficient administration of government, public administrators cling to the appearance of efficiency and effectiveness even when these values are unachievable. I encountered several instances in which the dominant management ideology of control and efficient allocation of the public's scarce resources is invoked by our administrators to help them rationalize a very messy situation in which they must act. The "messiness" or, in a more eloquent manner, predicament results from a variety of conditions that are increasingly more the rule than the exception.

I personally define the current predicament of administrators as a situation in which they are expected to act when they do not know what is wanted or what the issue is. In such cases conflicts among competing interest groups, the vagaries of technological change, or the ephemeral quality of modern public opinion all conspire to make the situation both ambiguous and equivocal.

Public administrators enter public service with a legitimating moral framework that justifies what they do, but find themselves using this framework as a mere tactical tool. This divergence between what our administrators are morally supposed to do and what, in fact, they find themselves doing is greatly exacerbated by their necessity to engage in the tug and pull of local politics.

The commitment to control and efficiency becomes tactically important in jockeying for position and in buying time. The consequence of this move by our administrators is a growing gap between their theory of action and their theory in action

It is not difficult to imagine that the growth of public services in this century has only increased the burden upon the poor public servant. So many publics to satisfy, and so many rules to observe, anyone striving for a career in the public sector must be raving mad. Like the Pharisee 2000 years ago, today’s public servant cannot justify his actions without referring to rules and codes of ethics. Is there any room left for individual morality? Where is the individual in all this?

The conflict between personal, individual morality (i.e. an individual’s sense of right and wrong or what is called virtue ethics, defined as the personal character traits that would presumably incline one to do the right thing and organizational morality (i.e., procedural ethics) is the main element of the current predicament. To what extent are individuals prepared to follow orders? At what point should they draw the line and refuse to participate in an action regarded as immoral? Is it allowed to override an order on the basis of a higher order personal morality? Faced with such a dilemma resignation was long considered the honorable option. But how many of us can afford to resign and face the uncertainty of shopping on the job market? Or, to put it in other words: If one opts for loyalty, and let organizational morality override personal concerns, does that mean that they have no character?

This, then, is one of the contemporary ethical challenges in the public sector: to solve individual dilemmas in a context of moral relativism while serving multiple publics.
The very act of codifying ethics should take assumptions and understanding of what can be organized to another level, the level reached when asked whether ethical codes of conduct actually work i.e. serve as guidance for determining what is right and wrong. Or, the extent to which people -- in practice -- still very much rely on individual morality instead of what is prescribed as proper moral conduct? We can reframe this argument even more cynically: has society’s sense of duty and obedience to rules also come to tarnish the sense of what is ethical behavior?

More provocatively, does a code of ethics provide the individual with the foundation or guidance upon which moral choices can be made? Are codes of ethics specific enough?
A way of conceptualizing competing ethics takes the individual as a point of departure and looks from him or her to the organization. Waldo’s twelve ethical obligations provide a good illustration of this approach. He distinguished obligations to:

1. the constitution,
2. the law,
3. nation or country,
4. democracy,
5. organizational-bureaucratic norms,
6. profession and professionalism,
7. family and friends,
8. self,
9. middle-range collectivities,
10. public interest/general welfare,
11. humanity or the world, and
12. religion or God

Waldo acknowledged that this eclectic listing could be indefinitely expanded. Waldo’s approach thus focuses on the level of individual duty. Not the duty of the employee to the organization, but the duty to individual morality. Waldo remarks about this duty to self: “Selfishness and egocentrism are by general agreement bad. The argument for self is that self-regard is the basis for other-regard, that proper conduct toward others, doing one’s duty, must be based on personal strength and integrity.” The ethics of individual duty is thus not only concerned with what is right and wrong, but just as much with respect.

Speaking of egocentrism, I remember another school of thought in resolving moral dilemmas. I, being a utilitarian, (only in the context that John Stuart Mill was the philosopher I need to report on back in Social Science 2 class) would consider answering the question, “What will maximize the good for the greatest number?”

J. S. Mill states his teleological position by insisting that the rightness of an action is determined by the actual consequences. It cannot be done simply examining the nature of the act alone. The real value of our actions depends on whether it promotes the good or not.

Despite of utilitarianism being a moral philosophy, we all know that the world where public administration exists is not a world of theory but rather of practice wherein every person involved faces every possible dilemma and every possible temptation this mundane world has to offer.

Making government work, for public administrators, means the ability to accommodate ambiguity, complexity, and conflict within the governance setting. It means taking up the slack to compensate for the reduced governance capacity of elected officials, intergovernmental constraints, reduced levels of resources, conflict among single issue interest groups, heightened levels of citizen participation, and, most important of all, the role reversal that these conditions have produced. Viewed against this kind of backdrop, making government work means being efficient, being effective, being responsive, being accountable, being fair, just, and equitable in the treatment of citizens. Despite the twists and turns of public administration one thin for sure is a general truth, that is public administrators assume a personal ethical obligation to all of these moral claims.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a very interesting entry. i was searching the net for an article about ethics in the political system and i saw your blog.

i am looking forward for more entries.

more power!

8:41 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a very exceptional article!

the author was able to scholarly scrutinize the relationship between ethics and public administration. i want to commend the author's sublime manipulation of words showcased in this literary masterpiece.

this is what we should expect from the youth of today. Mr. Lozada is indeed one of what Dr. Rizal described as the hope of the Motherland.

i hope to expect more from this blog.

6:57 AM

Blogger sunny rye monteleja nogalo said...

i was mesmerized by the article. iwasn't expecting that a young man can write something like this. it is so amazing...

4:48 PM


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