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Life Raft

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
July 26, 2016

PaddockA common exercise in team-building or ethics classes is the “lifeboat.” Your ship is sinking and there is only one lifeboat. You must decide who will be chosen for the boat. Those not chosen will drown.

The ensuing discussion raises issues of both personal and organizational values. Do you, for example, save a doctor, who can provide medical services, or a pregnant woman?  A physically healthy but mentally handicapped person or an elderly person?  A person with technical skills or one with team-building skills?

This exercise is mirrored in our everyday organizational decisions. A headline in a recent newspaper read, “State seeks guidance on crisis care protocol.” Public health officials were seeking guidance as they compiled standards of care to be implemented during a statewide crisis.

During a pandemic or major earthquake, who deserves medical care first: an elderly patient or someone younger? Should doctors be allowed to stray from their typical services if they believe their actions could save lives?

Results from these deliberations will be guidelines, not legal policy, to assist health care providers during massive emergency situations.

Emergency room personnel are trained to make such decisions during disasters or emergencies. Most of the rest of us think about these choices only when a crisis arises.

But such decisions are, in fact, made regularly, either as planned guidelines or on an ad hoc basis. How are food supplies distributed to food pantries or facilities serving the poor?  How are teachers assigned to schools?  How are hospitals identified as trauma centers?  Where will the homeless be served when the existing shelter suddenly closes? Which veterans will receive health care if we do not have the resources to serve all of them?  How will water be allocated during a drought?

These situations call upon public administrators to decide who will be on the lifeboat. How are those decisions made?  Regardless of organizational or resource considerations, these are always moral or ethical decisions and effective decision making recognizes that.

If you decide to give priority to organizational goals, you will by definition leave some off the lifeboat. Bowen McCoy, at the time a managing director of Morgan Stanley, tells of his decision to pursue his goal of completing a climb on Everest, rather than stay to help an ailing holy man, and the ethical concerns raised by that decision. Do we, in pursuing identified goals, leave some behind and hope others will serve them? If we choose to serve those is crisis (e.g., the holy man), will we then neglect those we have been assigned to serve?

There is a biblical saying: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). If our organizational “treasure” is our time (since our budgets “purchase” our time), what do our organizational actions say about our “hearts,” our moral underpinnings? Or, to put it another way, what do we owe to our clients/citizens and what do we owe to policymakers who provide policy direction? If we’re directed to drain the swamp, do we first need to decide what we’re going to do about the alligators?

At least one way to approach these dilemmas is utilitarianism or the greatest good for the greatest number. This approach argues that, for example, achieving the organizational goal of siting a power line that will serve a major urban area is more important than the loss of arable land of the farmers through which the line will pass. Saving a doctor, who can provide medical help to all survivors, is arguably a greater good than saving a pregnant woman, who will require special resources for herself and her baby to survive. Democracy is, at its heart, utilitarian.

But, as we have seen, especially in the past year, the underrepresented and the voiceless can rise up and change history (and organizational priorities). The American and French revolutions are good examples of that, as is the Civil Rights movement or the more recent Black Lives Matter movement.

Utilitarianism or consequentialism omits our moral intentions, our desires to do the “right” thing even though that may lead to unintended consequences. We will not reach our Everest goal if we help the holy man. We may not have sufficient food supplies for our elderly if we distribute what we have to needy school children. We may save the rancher during a flood but not his ability to survive economically, if his cattle drown.

It is often said that public administrators must deal with “wicked problems.” This generally describes problems, like poverty, for which there are no easy answers. But it also describes problems for which there are no right answers. Perhaps an appropriate guideline as we struggle with balancing organizational priorities with moral considerations is the guideline for physicians: “First, do no harm.”


Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is the former director of certified public manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources; and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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