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Deliberating on the Frontlines of a Crisis

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

By Richard M. Jacobs
April 23, 2020

When a major crisis arises—and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic—initial chaos and indecision stymie governments as their agents attempt to identify how to provide for their citizens’ immediate needs.

This initial chaos and indecision weakens public confidence and trust in government, an outcome representing a reactive form of crisis management, not a proactive form of ethical leadership.

Ethical leaders prepare for the next crisis proactively

Soon after COVID-19 hit Ireland, the nation’s Department of Health (I-DOH) published, “Ethical Framework for Decision-Making in a Pandemic.” The document provided those on the frontlines a rationale to respond to the crisis not only as medical ethics suggest but also in a way conversant with administrative ethics. The objective was that those on the frontlines would deliver affected citizens the best medical care possible as well as to increase public confidence and trust in government.

Eventually, public administrators in the United states will move forward from the current crisis. I-DOH’s framework offers them a process to exercise ethical leadership by proactively preparing those who will be serving on the frontlines in the next crisis to provide for citizens’ immediate needs as well as increase public confidence and trust in government.

I-DOH’s framework—structured similarly to ASPA’s Code of Ethics—provides public administrators a process to train those who will be on the frontlines of the next crisis to deliberate about what they will do in that crisis.

This training directs attention to proactive deliberation. The objective is for those who will be on the frontlines to possess a rationale that will support the difficult decisions they may be called upon to make.

The elements of this rationale include:

  • Focus: Continuously communicate the organization’s purpose. Ethical leaders proactively assist those who will be serving on the frontlines by directing their attention to why we do what we do. As this purpose becomes a shared purpose, it provides the anchor for all when the next crisis arises.
  • Principles: Enunciate the organization’s operating principles. Ideally, each principle will be upheld to the greatest extent possible, but situations and circumstances invariably require prioritizing them. Moreover, principles cannot be applied or implemented in isolation because decisions that safeguard one oftentimes conflict with another. To strengthen the deliberations of those who will be on the frontlines in the next crisis, ethical leaders proactively educate them about these principles as well as how they might be prioritized and applied.
  • Procedural values: Identify the values guiding operational procedures. Oftentimes, decisionmaking in a crisis is characterized by incomplete knowledge. Ethical leaders proactively assist those who will be on the frontlines in the next crisis to clarify those procedural values. Deliberating about them will add legitimacy to decisions made on the frontlines, encouraging those citizens impacted by the crisis to accept and cooperate even if they disagree with those decisions.
  • Responsibilities and obligations: Balance needs, responsibilities and requirements. A crisis requires juggling a variety of sometimes conflicting needs—citizens, colleagues and family members—alongside one’s professional responsibilities and obligations. Ethical leaders proactively facilitate those who will be on the frontlines to identify and prioritize these needs so they don’t waste time in the midst of the next crisis.

Ethical leaders know what’s at stake

Crises like COVID-19 strike at the heart of liberal democracies because public administrators may have to restrict individual liberty and privacy until the crisis is resolved. In addition, crises heighten inequality among citizens because some individuals and groups are more vulnerable than others, requiring greater attention and resources. Prioritizing those differences may bring equity and fairness into conflict.

Proactively deliberating deals at stake when crises arise: The legitimacy of the decisions those on the frontlines may have to make as well as the public’s acceptance of and cooperation with those decisions. As I-DOH observes:

“Using ethical principles to guide decisionmaking can enhance trust and solidarity, and can strengthen the legitimacy and acceptability of measures put in place.”

If for this reason only, ethical leadership requires public administrators to train those who will be serving on the frontlines proactively by deliberating today about what they may have to do tomorrow.

Yes, mistakes will be made; critics will also second-guess decisions. However, as former Obama administration Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco observed concerning this exercise of ethical leadership:

“[It] means planning ahead of a crisis, and having structures and organizations that can move quickly and principles that guide decisionmaking.”

Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]

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