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Everyday Acts of Courage

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

By Parisa Vinzant
January 26, 2024

The stakes are high in this time of hyper affective polarization, declining trust in government and ever-growing inequality. A rise in misleading and coordinated attacks—such as those against the adoption of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the public and private sector–cannot go unanswered. For those invested in the promise of making democracy work for all, we must act boldly.

More than ever, public servants’ discretion is vitally important to advance the policy goals of racial equity and justice within their sphere of influence. Public servants need to prepare themselves to perform everyday actions that push back when institutional forces interfere with equity initiatives or perpetuate inequity. Opposing discrimination and remedying inequities are ethical obligations of the public servant. After all, It’s Part of the Job, for which ample support is provided in the ethical codes of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) and the International City/County Management Association. When harm occurs that is concerning enough to warrant whistleblowing, the duty to act is unmistakable.

Too often the hierarchical nature in public administration, particularly at the local level with city and county managers, works against the individual agency of public servants in pursuing equitable outcomes. A “follow orders” environment is typical and inhibits public servants’ ability to make professional judgments—a reality that exposes the deep foundations of followership within the field. A key feature of followershipis obedience but in practice leaders will tolerate different levels of dissent. However, constructive feedback and dissent are a necessary failsafe to maintain an ethical, equitable, and just public administration. Without room for public servants to object or present alternatives, administrative evil, administrative racism, and convergence of callousness are likely to increase.

A system reset within public administration is necessary so that public servants feel more empowered to dissent and act courageously to advance equitable and just policies that are in the public’s best interest. However, bold action that is based solely on what a public servant personally thinks is right is not the answer. Rather, the public servant would be wise to apply the ethical tenants from ASPA, especially those to “promote the interests of the public” and to “put service to the public above service to oneself.” Although what the “interests of the public” is—and who defines it—can be tricky to determine, the development of a multi-part understanding of courage applied within the public administration context is crucial if we are to avoid abuse of power.

Ira Chaleff’s courageous follower model offers an opportunity for transformative change for the field, as it inspires followers to be courageous and intervene when their leaders abuse power or make other harmful decisions. For this model to work, followers must assume responsibility for their roles and the mission of their organization. Other aspects of Chaleff’s model encourages followers to serve their leaders and their organizational mission; to courageously challenge leaders’ behavior and/or decisions; to be open to engage in transformative processes with the leaders they have challenged; and to evaluate “what will best serve the common good” as they determine whether to take moral action. The British Army is an example of a public organization that recently implemented Chaleff’s courageous followership model into its Followership Doctrine.

Even if city or departmental leadership chooses to promote a discriminatory status quo, individual public servants can become change agents for equity on their own initiative. All it takes is the openness to apply equity lenses and the willingness to work through feelings of fear and discomfort. Often it is in the countless everyday challenges that public administrators most need to practice courage. Consider the following scenario:

A city technology manager is in the final stages of implementing a new equity-focused program for a digitally-disconnected community group that had previously experienced redlining and continues to live with the discriminatory health, economic and educational impacts, but is confronted with a new program requirement imposed by the city attorney. Using an equity lens to review the requirement’s impacts, the manager becomes concerned that the city attorney’s rule will unnecessarily burden or exclude those the program was designed to help. The manager conducts research and identifies solid alternatives to the rule. Next, the manager engages the city attorney in a respectful manner to ask for the removal of the onerous requirement or seeks permission from the technology department director to approach the city attorney. Presented with the research, there is a good likelihood that the city attorney would rescind the rule.

Contrary to popular belief, public servants do not need to be lawyers to go toe-to-toe with a city attorney or other city leader if they do their homework, marshal their courage and keep things professional. Since unintended policy and program consequences occur frequently, and often without malicious intent, the duty belongs to those closest to the program to do all that is necessary to advocate for equitable and just implementation.

With each challenge we courageously take on, we do our part to make government—and by extension democracy—work better for the whole of our communities. The importance of small acts for the common good must not be overlooked because their cumulative effect can lead to enduring positive change.

Author: Parisa Vinzant, MPA, works as a private and public sector strategist and equity/inclusion consultant. She also provides coaching to ICMA members. She served as a technology/innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Parisa applies an intersectional equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging from ethics, education, democracy, technology, and community engagement. All views are hers alone. Contact her at: [email protected].

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One Response to Everyday Acts of Courage

  1. Patrick Malone Reply

    January 26, 2024 at 2:36 pm

    Nice article Parisa!

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