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Ethics and Deconstruction of the State

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

By Michael Abels
April 11, 2017

The field of public administration has entered an era of extreme ethical danger. The Trump administration goal of “deconstructing the administrative state” and using untruthful propaganda as a weapon in the deconstruction, has begun in earnest. While the goal of the current “deconstruction” is much clearer, the ideological campaign to delegitimize and dismantle government has been ongoing since the presidency of Ronald Reagan in 1980. From Reagan’s mantra that “government is the problem” through Clinton’s “the era of big government is over”, to George W. Bush’s “starving the (government) beast”, the public has been besieged by a psychological campaign targeted to delegitimize government. The outcomes for society are having devastating results.

The most troubling outcome of government delegitimization is the erosion of public confidence in all institutions serving Americans, both public and private. A Gallup poll in 2016 showed only 32 percent of Americans worldexpressing confidence in key U.S. institutions. Extremely troubling, for the key institutions, only two, police and the military, are viewed with confidence by over 50 percent of Americans. Churches, schools, media and the medical system all received less than 50 percent confidence. A similar poll by PEW Research documented that only 19 percent trust the federal government to do what is right most of the time. Of greater concern, only 34 percent say they have a great deal of confidence in the political wisdom of their fellow Americans. State and local governments fare much better with 63 percent of the public expressing a favorable view of local government, and 57 percent expressing a favorable view of state government. However, destabilizing the administrative state is rippling throughout government at all levels. The public’s expected performance for federal agencies is declining due to budget sequestration, and, could be crippled by the 2018 budget targets set by the Trump administration. The Internal Revenue Service demonstrates administrative decline. Reduction in funding with concurrent reduction in IRS agents, resulted with the agency in 2015 performing the lowest number of tax audits since 2004, and, drastically reducing customer service to the public. Per the New York Times, in 2004 a taxpayer with a problem could speak with someone for assistance in less than three minutes. In 2015, service has eroded so the time was 20 or more minutes.

A primary tactic in destroying the administrative state is to decrease public support for the agency by delegitimizing the mission, and eroding service levels received by the public. However, the deconstruction of the state does not stop with the Federal government. The dismantling of state government directed by the Governor of Kansas is a prime example of ideological deconstruction designed to erode the institutions of government. At the local level, there are indications while the recession may be over, a state of ideological and financial disruption continues to impact the health of local government. This trend is demonstrated by towns in 27 states, including Omaha, Nebraska, where revenue deficiencies are forcing deteriorated paved streets be “reclaimed” into gravel streets. Also, in North Carolina where several small towns are considering dissolution due to insufficiency of revenues.

A vital element in deconstruction is instituting an ideological, psychological incitement designed to delegitimize the legislatively established agency mission. In this environment, civil servants working for the agency are placed in an ethical dilemma. They must either resist the management directives to deconstruct the agency and delegitimize the agency mission, or conversely, they must acquiesce, becoming part of the false, disinformation program. If public administrators choose the latter, they will violate a central ethical code for public administration: honesty. Actions of the Director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are an example when he set the EPA in motion to oppose scientifically-based research with his claim that carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to climate change. The code of ethics set by the National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP) requires not being involved in dishonesty, and secondly, to practice the best principles of environmental science for protection and enhancement of the environment. So, when a civil servant working for EPA is told to ignore scientific evidence, to participate in the dismantling of programs essential for carrying out the agency mission or to represent and support false statements of agency leadership, what is the proper ethical response? Does following political leadership directing such action justify compliance? If not, what form should resistance take? Resignation or other action?

The future portends the deconstruction of the public administrative state will grow as a dominant theme for all levels of American government. As it does, public administrators will encounter more ethical dilemmas where ethical constructs such as honesty and pursuing the public interest must be violated, or, alternatively, actions must be taken to resist directives based on false information and that violate the legislatively established mission for their agency. If resistance is the route taken, what form should resistance take, so resistance itself does not violate ethical norms?

This ethical dilemma is a critical question that must be debated, with future direction recommended by ASPA, academic institutions and professional associations representing those working in the field of public administration.

Author: Michael Abels, career city manager and retired Lecturer in Public Administration, University of Central Florida. Currently serving as adjunct faculty at Stetson University. [email protected] or [email protected]


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