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What Does It Mean to Be Responsible as a Public Servant?

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

By Terry Newell
September 5, 2017

Shortly after becoming president, John Kennedy had to decide whether to “green light” a plot to overthrow Fidel Castro. The “Bay of Pigs” invasion had been planned under President Eisenhower. Kennedy gave the OK, but the operation failed miserably. On April 21, 1961, at a State Department press conference, Kennedy said: “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan … Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I’m the responsible officer of the Government.”

responsibilityEarly in his administration, Donald Trump had to make a similar decision. A counter-terrorism raid in Yemen had been planned in the Obama Administration. Trump had to decide whether to launch it. He gave it the green light. On January 28, it resulted in the death of Navy Seal Ryan Owens and a number of Yemeni civilians. Asked about the loss of Owens on “Fox and Friends,” Trump said: “This was a mission that was started before I got here . . . This was something they wanted to do. They came to see me, they told me what they wanted to do, the generals . . . And they lost Ryan.”

Kennedy won respect for accepting responsibility; Trump was criticized for seeming to evade it. But what, actually, must a public servant do to be responsible?

A Bureaucrat Demonstrates Responsibility

Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora’s actions in 2002-2003 offer some guidelines.

On December 17, 2002, Mora learned detainees held by the military at Guantanamo Bay were being subjected to cruel and unlawful interrogation. Mora was no “bleeding heart.” His parents were refugees from communism, and he supported the war on terror. But, as he later said: “I was appalled by the whole thing. It was clearly abusive and it was clearly contrary to everything we were ever taught about American values.”

On January 15, 2003, after verifying reports he had received and confronting both Gordon England, Secretary of the Navy, and his own boss, Pentagon General Counsel William Haynes, Mora sent an unsigned, draft memo to Haynes. Mora’s draft, which he said he would sign later that day—making it official and on the record—described the interrogation techniques he had learned as “at a minimum cruel and unusual treatment, and, at worst, torture.”  The stronger phrasing referred to the prohibition of such treatment in the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions.

Mora’s action did not ultimately stop the torture of detainees, but it did force the Bush administration to justify its actions, behavior for which it would ultimately be held accountable by the public and Congress, especially after the techniques, also used at Abu Ghraib prison, became public.

What Defines Responsibility?

Mora’s behavior illustrates several principles that characterize responsibility in public service:

  • He did his homework, gathering information to investigate and ensure his concern was justified.
  • He held himself accountable for speaking up — for demonstrating the moral courage needed when official action violated the public trust.
  • He used the chain of command to place responsibility where it belonged, among superiors who could stop the illegal action.
  • He was trustworthy. He did not “leak” the information. He acted professionally and appropriately.
  • He demonstrated professional balance. As professor Terry Cooper said in The Responsible Administrator, Mora balanced the imperatives of being within an organization with his obligation to look beyond it. He was conscious not just of what his job demanded but the obligations of his Oath of Office.
  • He put his integrity first. Mora was under no illusions about how his dissent would be received. But as he said in a later interview, “my mother would have killed me if I hadn’t spoken up . . . human rights are incompatible with cruelty. The debate here isn’t only how to protect the country. It’s how to protect our values.”
  • He was value-driven, with the right priority among competing values. Loyalty was a value for Mora, but it came second to the value he placed on human rights.

Alberto Mora left government in 2006 and that year received a Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. The award recognized Mora “for his moral courage and his commitment to upholding American values.” In his acceptance speech, Mora reflected on the meaning of courage and recalled a quote from Isaiah that he had seen under a painting in the Pentagon. God asks the question: “Whom shall I send. And who will go for us?”, to which Isaiah answers: “Here I am. Send me!” That, it seems, strikes at the heart of responsibility as a public servant — to recognize we must each answer the call with the acknowledgement “Here I am. Send me!”


Author: Terry Newell is President of his training firm, Leadership for a Responsibility Society and is the former Dean of Faculty of the Federal Executive Institute. This is the first of four quarterly columns exploring moral courage in public service. He can be reached at [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.

5 Responses to What Does It Mean to Be Responsible as a Public Servant?

  1. Howard Borgstrom Reply

    September 7, 2017 at 11:10 am

    Nice job. I concur with Anna that we need more examples of this type of public service.

  2. Matt Scassero Reply

    September 6, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    As usual, spot on, Terry. Simple steps to follow in your seven principles, but they have to be practiced, be recognized, and exemplified. Thanks for continuing to share.

  3. Anna Marie Schuh Reply

    September 5, 2017 at 9:57 pm

    Terry,

    Thanks for the example of what honorable public service looks like. Right now we need a lot of these examples to remind us what public service should be.

  4. Darrell K. Moore Reply

    September 5, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    I had a lump in my throat after reading this, especially the quote from Isaiah, which is one of my favorite passages in the Old Testament. Here I am, send me, says it all regarding commitment, accountability and sacrifice. When called, answer. Go, do the right thing; the cause is bigger than the individual. When the individual does the right thing though, it subsequently benefits the whole.

    That sums up public service for me also.

  5. Chuck Wallace Reply

    September 5, 2017 at 2:36 pm

    Nice Article Terry. Hopefully more and more leaders accept the responsibility of their office and as a member of the human race.

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