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Combating Administrative Evil

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

By Parisa Vinzant
December 7, 2019

In these polarized times, public administrators face difficult new political realities, some of which endanger even the foundations of our democracy. An incremental but unrelenting increase in corruption and unchecked unethical conduct at the highest levels of government are concealed by the insidious tactic of camouflaging the intent and consequences of policy changes through the use of Newspeak that serves partisan self-interest.

This tactic increases the potential for administrative evil, as “Manifested in acts of dehumanization and genocide,” a concept introduced by Danny Balfour, Guy Adams and Ashley Nickels in their book, Unmasking Administrative Evil. The authors propose a definition of evil that consists of, “A continuum of evil and wrongdoing, with horrible, mass eruptions of evil, such as the Holocaust and other, lesser instances of mass murder, at one extreme, and the ‘small’ white lie, which is somewhat hurtful, at the other.” While evil involves, “Acts committed in relative ignorance to those committed knowingly and deliberately, or what we would characterize as masked and unmasked evil,” Balfour et al. assert that administrative evil, “Falls within the part of the continuum in which people engage in or contribute to acts of evil without recognizing that they are doing anything wrong.”

Propaganda can be used to blur ethical boundaries, lead to moral inversion and mask the point a particular action occupies on the continuum, increasing the potential for administrative evil. The use of propaganda is prevalent in war, advertising and politics. Its techniques are dismayingly effective, including: name-calling and stereotyping; using generalizations, like patriotism and freedom, to create a positive, emotional response to ideas; employing euphemisms to mask reality; presenting as one of the common people, a non-elitist whose ideas represent the masses; and instilling fear that something bad will happen unless certain actions are taken.

According to the American Society for Public Administration’s (ASPA) Code of Ethics, the spirit of public administration is to, “Promote the interests of the public and put service to the public above service to oneself.” It is understandable with the current state of public discourse that some may want to avoid the danger of speaking against wrongdoing and withdraw to the safer ground of focusing on only three pillars of administration: economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Unfortunately, though, “Just doing my job,” is too often an excuse for not grappling with the demands of ethics, without which the pillars can’t support anything of benefit to the public. 

Cruelty by Design

Recent examples of unethical strategies are too numerous to list, but the zero tolerance policy to separate parents and children upon entry to the United States at the southern border exemplifies not just unethical decisionmaking but also administrative evil.

The idea for the policy was packaged in layers of disinformation to conceal its true intent, to provide cover against criticism and to produce a sense of fear and urgency to establish the validity of the policy. The first step was to dehumanize immigrants from Mexico as, “Criminals” and, “Rapists,” comprising an, “Invasion,” of violent people, “Bringing drugs,” into the country. In his 2012 book, Less Than Human, David Livingstone Smith states that dehumanization, “Opens the door for cruelty and genocide.” Next, the validity of the policy was stressed through false statements that Obama had practiced the same policy of family separation, while mischaracterizing the catch-and-release policy under Obama. Fundamentally, the policy was intended to serve as a form of deterrence, but there is little evidence it is having the desired effect.

CBS News reported on November 27, 2019, that the scale of the family separation under the zero tolerance policy is higher than previously known (2,800) with a total of at least 5,500 children separated from their parents—and the numbers continue to climb. Why?

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General report on November 25, 2019, said the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) experienced systemic information technology deficiencies. Thus, the OIG was unable to, “Validate the total number of separations, or reunifications.” Further, the DHS OIG report found that the CBP set the policy goal of separating 26,000 children from their parents between May and September 2018, which has caused irreparable harm.

Yet, no amount of rhetoric or propaganda could withstand the impact on the public of hearing the sobs of frightened children separated from their families and visceral accounts of their detention in, “Unspeakable environments, characterized by a complete loss of human dignity”—overcrowded, cold, denied basic necessities for hygiene and covered in lice and their own filth.

According to the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense, family separations continue (1,100 and counting) because the CBP lacks, “Particular guidelines, protocols or procedures,” to determine exceptions to the June 2018 court order.

Boldly Dissent

ASPA’s Code of Ethics calls on administrators to balance the ethical principle to, “Respect and support government constitutions and laws,” while, “Promot[ing] the public good,” with the social equity principle to, “Treat all persons with fairness, justice and equality.”

While some career administrators opposed the zero tolerance policy, not enough did. Senior officials and public managers likely knew the cruel aim of this policy, making their actions overtly evil. Yet, it is possible that some street-level bureaucrats were unaware of the evil they were implementing.

Now is our moment of collective reckoning: will public administrators proactively identify and prevent unethical conduct and administrative evil? By embodying the highest possible ethical values, we strengthen the guardrails of our democracy.

Author: Parisa Vinzant is a consultant, MPA-seeking student (Biden School of Public Policy and Administration, University of Delaware), and technology/innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Through her writing, Parisa seeks to apply a diversity, inclusion, ethics, and social/racial equity lens to such topics as democracy, technology, revitalizing the middle class, and community engagement. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant (Twitter).

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