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A Tripodal Approach to Supporting Values-Based Decision-making—Second Leg: Analysis

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

By JoAnne Speers
September 12, 2022

This column is the third in a series of four exploring approaches to in-service public service ethics education. Each column explores one of the elements of a framework that can be presented in a time-efficient manner to help public servants think about acting consistently with their values.

  • The first column explored the benefits of using a core values approach to ethics education along with a working definition of integrity.
  • The second column introduced the concept of behavioral ethics and discussed awareness as a critical component in people staying true to their values—both awareness of our human tendency towards ethical blind spots and the need to habitually view situations with an eye to the values at stake.

Once one has identified a situation or decision as presenting values issues, what next? This column offers thoughts on analytic approaches (analysis) educators can share and leaders can model in their organizations.

Analytic Frameworks for the Time-Pressed

Public administration pedagogy is fortunate to have several fine public service ethics textbooks. In those public administration programs offering courses substantially focused on ethics issues, these equip students to carefully think through public service ethical dilemmas.

As previously noted, in-service ethics training efforts face time-constraints. So too do efforts to integrate ethics discussions into MPA/MPP courses like public finance, policy analysis and organizational behavior. To be practical in both contexts, a pedagogical framework must be simple and memorable.

Drumwright and colleagues make an interesting observation on the attention business school ethics education often gives to the decision-making methodologies. They note that many ethical scandals do not involve particularly vexing philosophical quandaries. The same can be said for any number of public sector ethics scandals, whether they involve accepting gifts (or bribes), misusing public resources, falsifying performance data or giving preference to friends or family members.

Two Kinds of Ethical Dilemmas

Kidder identifies two kinds of ethical dilemmas. These can be a helpful starting point for an analysis of what the best resolution of a dilemma is.

As noted in the last column, case studies provide learners with the opportunity to identify the values at stake in a dilemma (to practice awareness). A next line of questioning is which kind of ethical dilemma a case study presents (or in what ways a situation presents both kinds of dilemmas).

Right versus Right Ethical Dilemmas

If a situation presents a “conflicting right values” ethical dilemma, a next question is which value(s) ought to be given more weight considering the context. An agency’s values statement, if one exists, may provide some guidance. So can professional codes of ethics. For example, the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) Code of Ethics emphasizes the importance of trustworthiness in the public finance profession.

The “which value should have more weight” discussion also is a good opportunity for public servants and students to reflect on what core values are most important to them in their public service.

Another analytical consideration to include is that perceptions of impropriety can be just as important as actual impropriety in the public service context. Another is that just because an action is legal, does not mean that it is ethical (or will satisfy the public’s perception of what is ethical).

Of course, not everyone may agree on which values should be given more weight. As Gentile notes in Giving Voice to Values, values conflicts are a normal part of professional life. Helping learners practice having these conversations and consider (and respond to) those with differing perspectives helps build important professional skills. It also builds what Gentile calls “moral muscle memory” that can help people respond effectively in the future.

Moral Courage Ethical Dilemmas

Moral courage ethical dilemmas tee up a different line of conversation. Depending on the specifics of the situation, the cost of “doing the right thing” can be damaging to relationships or put one’s job or career advancement at risk. We understand from behavioral ethics research that a number of human tendencies come into play in such situations (including, for example, self-serving bias, conformity bias, status quo bias and obedience to authority bias).

These underscore how difficult these kinds of situations can be, which is why we often see people decide not to incur such costs. It is also why Dunn’s definition of integrity described in the first column sets such a high bar.

Next Steps: From Analysis to Action

This is where the third component of the framework can be helpful, which is how to voice one’s concerns to try to encourage others within an organization to consider the values implications of a proposed decision or course of action. That topic will be the final element of this suggested framework for thinking about ethical decision-making and education: action.


Author: JoAnne Speers, MPP and JD, trains and consults on public service ethics as principal of S2 Ethics Strategies. She previously served as chief executive of the Institute for Local Government, where she developed and directed its ethics program. JoAnne has also taught ethics as an adjunct professor. Her email is [email protected]

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