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Ethics in Public Administration Essay

The national bicentennial in 1976 marked two important birthdays for public administration. It was the ninetieth anniversary of the appearance of the first fully developed essay on what was considered a “new” or at least a separately identified field — public administration. In that essay, the young political scientist Woodrow Wilson (1941) wrote the now famous words, “administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions; although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices. “

And it was exactly fifty years since the publication of Leonard White (1926) text, Introduction to the Study of Public Administration, the first in the field. White’s book was, for his time, an advanced and sophisticated attempt to marry the science of government and the science of administration. Whereas Wilson had argued that public administration is “a field of business” and should be separate from “politics,” White forty years later countered that public administration can be effective only if it constitutes an integration of the theory of government and the theory of administration.

As fields or professions go, public administration is young. Its early impetus was very much connected with civil service reform, the city manager movement, the “good government” movement, and the professionalization of the administrative apparatus of government. It was in this era that “principles of administration” were developed and the first academic programs in the field were established at American universities. This was a heady era, during which the United States civil service was developed, an innovation adopted in many American states and municipalities.

Formal systems of budgeting and purchasing were adopted, and other aspects of the science of management were applied to government affairs. Many of the early leaders in this reform movement also played out important political roles, most notably Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Public administration was new, a response to a rapidly changing government. The second “era” in public administration could be said to have begun with the Depression and the New Deal, followed by World War II.

This era was characterized by the remarkably rapid growth of the government, particularly at the national level, the development of major American social programs, and ultimately the development of a huge defense program. At this time it became apparent that a large and centralized government can accomplish heroic tasks. Patterns were being developed and attitudes framed for the conduct of American government and the practices of public administration for the coming twenty years. This era also produced most of the major American scholars in public administration who were to dominate the scene from the 1940s into the 1970s.

The period that followed was characterized by rapid growth in the public service and by extensive suburbanization and urbanization. But it was also a period of great questioning of the purposes and premises of public administration. A broad variety of social programs and services were developed, a cold war machine was maintained, and the public service continued both to grow and to professionalize. It seemed as if such expansion could go on endlessly. But by the mid-1960s several crises were developing simultaneously. In many ways, these crises seemed in part to result from the excesses of an earlier time.

In other ways, they seemed to be an expression of old and unanswered problems built into our society and our system of government. The urban crisis resulted from relentless suburbanization — governmentally supported. The racial crisis is closely connected, resulting in part from the serious ghettoization of American minorities in the central sections of our great cities. As the central cities have deteriorated, so have their public services. We continue to have unacceptable levels of unemployment, especially among minorities.

And our welfare system is badly overloaded. The rapid depletion of our fuel resources results in an energy crisis, which comes hard on the heels of the environmental crisis. And, of course, there is health care, transportation, and on and on. All of these crises have affected public administration. Three particular events or activities occurred between the mid-1960s and 1970s that indelibly marked the society and the government and, hence, public administration: the war in Vietnam, the urban riots and continued racial strife, and Watergate.

These crises and events resulted in new government programs and changed ways of thinking about and practicing public administration. Frederick C. Mosher and John C. Honey studied the characteristics and composition of the public service in the mid-1960s. 3 Their basic finding was that most public servants feel little or no identity with the field of public administration. Few have ever had a course and fewer still hold a degree in the subject. Public administration at the time seemed to have a rather narrow definition of its purposes, centering primarily on budgeting, personnel, and organization and management problems.

Most public servants, it was found, identify with some or another professional field, such as education, community planning, law, public health, or engineering. Even many of those who would be expected to identify with public administration are more particularly interested in some subset of the field, such as finance, personnel, policy analysis, and the like. There was very little policy emphasis in public administration — very little discussion of defense policy, environmental policy, economic policy, urban policy. There was, at the time, much talk of public administration as everyone’s “second profession.

” Education for public administration in the mid-1960s hardly sparkled. The early furor of the reformers had died. The American Society for Public Administration was beginning to struggle. By the late 1970s, public administration had changed, both in its practice and its teaching. There are many indicators: the Intergovernmental Personnel Act; Title IX of the Higher Education Act; the Federal Executive Institute and the Federal Executive Seminars; the remarkable growth and vigor of education for public service; the President’s Management Intern Program; the Harry S.

Truman Foundation; the size and quality of ASPA; the development of the Consortium on Education for the Public Service; several HUD grants to public administration-related activities; a much heavier policy emphasis; a renewed concern for ethics and morality in government service; and the continued professionalization of the public service coupled with refinement of management methods at all levels of government. To affix the label “new” to anything is risky business. The risk is doubled when newness is attributed to ideas, thoughts, concepts, paradigms, theories.

Those who claim new thinking tend to regard previous thought as old or jejune or both. In response, the authors of previous thought are defensive and inclined to suggest that aside from having packaged earlier thinking in a new vocabulary there is little that is really new in so-called new thinking. Accept, therefore, this caveat: Parts of new public administration would be recognized by Plato, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Hamilton, and Jefferson as well as by many modern behavioral theorists.

The newness is in the way the fabric is woven, not necessarily in the threads that are used. And the newness is in arguments as to the proper use of the fabric — however threadbare. The threads of the public administration fabric are well known. Herbert Kaufman describes them simply as the pursuit of these basic values: representativeness, politically neutral competence, and executive leadership (Kaufman, 1969). In different times, one or the other of these values receives the greatest emphasis. Representativeness was preeminent in the Jacksonian era.

The eventual reaction was the reform movement emphasizing neutral competence and executive leadership. Now we are witnessing a revolt against these values accompanied by a search for new modes of representativeness. Others have argued that changes in public administration resemble a zero-sum game between administrative efficiency and political responsiveness. Any increase in efficiency results a priori in a decrease in responsiveness. We are simply entering a period during which political responsiveness is to be purchased at a cost in administrative efficiency.

Clearly, the most interesting developments in modern public administration are not empirical but are philosophical, normative, and speculative. In public administration, the phrase “social equity” has emerged as a shorthand way of referring to the concerns and opinions of those who are challenging contemporary theory and practice. As yet, the phrase social equity, however, has little substance or precision. The problem of equity is as old as government. Dwight Waldo (1972) points out that “much governmental action in the United States has not been simply discriminatory but massively and harshly so.

Much governmental action has also, however, been directed toward achieving equality; paradoxically, action to assure assimilation and uniformity also has sometimes been insensitive and coercive. “Equality,” he concludes, “is central to the understanding of much recent and contemporary public administration. ” It has been seriously suggested that social equity be a standard by which public administrators, both in the bureau and the academy, assess and evaluate their behavior and decisions.

Social equity, then, would be a criterion for effectiveness in public administration in the same way that efficiency, economy, productivity, and other criteria are used. Whenever an ethic or standard for behavior is described, it is essential to provide an accompanying caveat. In the present case, the social equity point of view will need to be buffered by recognition first that there is a high ethical content in most significant public decisions; public problems do not succumb simply to factual analysis.

This being the case, if the public servant is to be an interpreter of events and an influencer, if not a maker of decisions, what, then, should be included in the standards of ethical behavior that guide the public servant? Surely the standards of ethics and morality that are applicable and sufficient to a citizen in private or in social relationships are not adequate for the public decisions of an administrator. And it is now increasingly clear that the decision problems faced by these administrators are seldom black or white in relation to their ethical content and consequences.

There often is really no “one best way,” but rather a decision should be made that maximizes such results as are attainable given the resources available and minimizes negative side effects. And finally, one must accept the proposition that politics and administrative organizations are themselves the best protectors of administrative morality provided that they are open, public, and participatory. Within this context, then, we pursue the development of a social equity ethic for public administration. Modern public administration cannot assume these conditions away.

Certainly pluralistic governments (practicing majority rule, coupled with powerful minorities with special forms of access) systematically discriminate in favor of established, stable bureaucracies and their specialized clientele — and against those minorities who lack political and economic resources. Thus widespread and deep inequity are perpetuated. The long-range continuation of widespread and deep inequities poses a threat to the continued existence of this or any political system. Continued deprivation amid plenty breeds hopelessness and her companions, anger and militancy.

A public administration that fails to work for changes that try to address this deprivation will likely eventually be used to oppress the deprived. What new public administration is striving for, then, is equity. Black’s Law Dictionary (1957) defines equity in its broadest and most general signification: [Equity] denotes the spirit and the habit of fairness and justness and right dealing which would regulate the intercourse of men with men, — the rule of doing to all others, as we desire them to do to us; or, as it is expressed by Justinian, “to live honestly, to harm nobody, to render every man his due.

” … It is therefore, the synonym of natural right or justice. But in this sense its obligation is ethical rather than jural, and its discussion belongs to the sphere of morals. It is grounded in the precepts of the conscience not in any sanction of positive law. Equity, then, is an issue that we will find to be a question of ethics. We will also find it to be a question of law. The foremost theorist presently supporting a concept of equity in government is John Rawls (1971). In his book A Theory of Justice, he sets out a splendid framework for a fundamental equity ethic.

When speaking of our government institutions, Rawls states: “For us the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation. By major institutions I understand the political constitution and the principal economic and social arrangements. ” Justice, then, is the basic principle and is dominant over other principles in Rawls’s form of ethics. Rawls begins his theory with a definition of the individual or citizen and states:

Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by the greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore, in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interest.

In developing his theory, Rawls suggests an intellectual device or technique by which the principles of equity can be set forth. The first and most important intellectual technique is the notion of original position. The original position constitutes an agreement upon the most basic principles of justice upon which all of the basic structures of society (social, economic, and political) will be predicated. The principles of justice that emerge are both final and binding on all: “Since the original agreement is final and made in perpetuity, there is no second chance.

” To make this theory operative, Rawls then proposes two principles of justice: “The first principle is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. The second principle is that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality and opportunity.

” 11 These two principles, then, are to be a right of the same significance or order as the present rights as we understand them in government. Hart further states: According to Rawls, acceptance of the two principles of justice means that the collective efforts of society would be concentrated in behalf of its less advantaged members. This does not mean that all inequalities would disappear and all good will be equally distributed to achieve parity throughout the society. There would still be disparities in income and status.

But there is an irreducible minimum of primary goods (such as self-respect, rights and liberties, power and opportunities, income and wealth) that are due every man, and the minimum must be met. 12 Rawls states that this is “a strongly egalitarian conception in the sense that unless there is a distribution that makes both persons better off (limiting ourselves to the two-person case for simplicity), an equal distribution is to be preferred. ” 13 It is obvious that Rawls theory of justice is vastly different from other contemporary patterns of moral reasoning.

Rawls does not argue it because it is good or right but rather because there is an increasing importance to the interdependence of persons that makes notions of advantages and disadvantages less and less acceptable. It is a pervasive sense of noblesse oblige or a sense of eternity among people. Rawls states that “in justice as fairness men agree to share one another’s fate. In designing institutions they undertake to avail themselves of the accidents of nature and social circumstances only when doing so is for the common benefit.

” Because not all persons are genetically “equal,” the more advantaged have a moral duty to serve all others including the disadvantaged, not for altruistic reasons but because of the significance of human interdependence. As Hart (1974) says, “One serves because justice requires it and the result is the continuous enhancement of self-respect. Just actions, then, not only create the optimal condition for human life, they also are a major element in the rationalization of self. “

Although all of this theory and definition is interesting, we live in a world of large and very complex organizations where the application of such concepts is difficult. This is also a world in which organizations tend to elevate their own needs over individual needs and goals. The problem is one of making complex organizations responsible to the needs of the individual. This requires rising above the rules and routines of organization to some concern for the self-respect and dignity of the individual citizen.

Rawls’s theory is designed to instruct those who administer organizations that the rights of individuals would be everywhere protected. Hart summarizes this approach to social equity with the following: (1) The theory of justice would provide social equity with an ethical content. Acceptance of the theory of justice would provide the equitable public administrator with clear, well-developed ethical guidelines which would give social equity the force that it now lacks.

(2) The theory of justice could provide the necessary ethical consensus -that the equitable public administrator has both the duty and the obligation to deploy his efforts on behalf of the less advantaged. (3) The theory of justice would impose constraints upon all complex public organizations since no organization would be allowed to infringe upon the basic liberties of individuals. (4) The theory of justice would provide a means to resolve ethical impasses (the original position). (5) The theory of justice would provide a professional code for public administration that would require a commitment to social equity (Hart, 1974).


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