Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ethics and US Public Policy 1883-1998

Steven Cohen and William B. Eimicke of the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University survey ethics and US Government public policy (1998 and still timely)

- Excerpt -

A 1996 study of 750 randomly selected members of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) focused on members' perceptions of ethics in American society and government, the nature of integrity in public agencies, and ASPA's own Code of Ethics. (Bowman and Willliams, 1997) The researchers found that ethics is a matter of substantial and increasing concern among public management academics and practitioners. A large majority of the survey respondents indicated that they wanted ASPA to strengthen and expand its ethics program and include in that program advocacy, consultancies and evaluation. (Bowman and Williams, 1997; p. 524)

Interestingly, the challenge of Reinvention, just like the challenge of Reaganism has resulted in a fundamental reexamination of the field. Both involved attacks on government and its ability to perform; Reagan sought to reduce government, Osborne to redesign it. In both cases, public administrators are confronted with different environments within which to define "right" or ethical behavior. In both cases, there is a desire to return to classical expressions of values, ethics and ideals.


In 1995, we commented on what we saw as a crisis in public management--a "decline in a sense of community and ability of society to act as a collective enterprise" and a "decline of values and public morality." (Cohen and Eimicke, 1995; p. 1) Our proposed solutions then and now include greater accountability for performance, fair procurement and fair hires practices, greater projections for and empowerment of whistle-blowers and stronger enforcement of ethics laws and professional codes of conduct. (Cohen and Eimicke, 1995; p. 10) For the individual public manager, we strongly urge them to accept personal responsibility for their public actions and to weigh the ethics of the programs and the policies they set in motion. (Bowman, 1991). We also stress the recognition that the options of compliance, vocal objection and resignation are also available as a personal protection and public response. (Hirshman, 1970) Our ethical reasoning and that of our profession continue to evolve.

We are entering a new era of public ethics where performance and morality will be accorded equal priority. We reject the notion of some Reinventionists that performance management alone will assure the proper level of public ethics. However, we also reject the contention of Frederickson and others that public entrepreneurship is too dangerous from an ethical perspective and should be rejected as a viable public management strategy.

Public entrepreneurship is increasingly essential to meet the public's demand for higher quality, more responsive government that also costs less. However, most public officials are not currently fully equipped to determine the ethical risks and dangers that a particular policy innovation may encompass. To deal with this skills gap, we support a more comprehensive ethics curriculum in schools of public policy and administration. This should be part of an aggressive on-the-job training program that must be a central element of advocacy agenda carried forward by ASPA and other professional associations whose members work in the public sector. Moreover, in addition to education about the ethical choices that result from entrepreneurial public management, we also favor the training public managers to understand private sector business methods and practices. In our earlier work we noted that incompetence in task performance could be a form of dereliction of duty and therefore a breech of ethics. Public administrators cannot fall asleep at the switch and use the excuse of ignorance when they mismanage an interaction with the private sector.

Ethical public administration can build on the lessons of each era of public ethics. From the Reform Era, we need the clear sense of public interest and the effort to establish professional norms of ethical behavior. From the New Public Administration, we need to adapt the key concept of personal responsibility and the ethical imperatives on individuals in complex organizations. The attacks on government's role (Reagan) and competence (Osborne) requires us to rethink the place of government in society and the tasks of government. These require us to think, as the Lynches have, about the need to ensure that public administrators have a moral grounding. We also need to engage in the debate that Fredrickson has reopened about the purpose of public administration. We are eager to participate in this discussion of the basics: what are the values, ideals, purpose and ethics of the public manager? In our view, it is an emphasis on education, competence and individual responsibility rather than investigation and privatization that will lead us into a new, more ethical and effective public administration for the twenty-first century.

Read this entire document here.

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