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Fending Off Administrative Evil

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

By Richard M. Jacobs
February 5, 2016

During the past year, several scandals shined the light on higher education in the State of Illinois:

  • One scandal concerned administrators of the state’s second-largest college, the College of DuPage (COD), which hid more than $95 million in illegitimate spending between 2009 and 2015. An internal audit revealed the then-vice chair of COD’s board violated the institution’s ethics policy by assisting political allies to win seats on the board in order to ensure her election as chair.
  • Another scandal concerned South Suburban College (SCC), whose administrators were awarding no-bid contracts to companies whose leaders or owners served on the board of SCC’s foundation. The foundation’s vice president owns a plant and landscaping company that has billed SCC $343,000 for business completed for SCC. Foundation officials said the no-bid contracts were legitimate because “the companies have done good work.”
  • A third scandal concerned senior administrators of the University of Illinois System using private email accounts for official business and failing to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, as required by law. On the surface, this scandal appears to pale by comparison, but circumstantial evidence suggests that the troubling contents of some emails forced the then-chancellor of the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana to resign her position for violating university policy on both counts. 

Scandals like these rightly raise taxpayers’ ire. From the perspective of administrative ethics, one wonders: what transpires in the minds of public administrators to justify engaging in unethical conduct?

What is administrative evil?

In Unmasking Administrative Evil, Adams and Balfour argue that evil is an essential concept for understanding the human condition, as well as the hows and whys of human conduct in organizations, particularly when it comes to unethical conduct.

Administrative evil occurs when public administrators do what everyone believes they should be doing to fulfill their organizational roles and responsibilities. But, in reality, these administrators are engaging directly in or contributing to evil acts and—this is crucial—are not cognizant they’re doing so. Yet, in retrospect, it’s obvious they were.


Adams and Balfour offer the example of those train station managers—public servants—in Nazi Germany who kept the trains running on time. Never once did they ask where those trains, filled with all of those people, were headed. Adams and Balfour also offer the example of U.S. Armed Forces personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq who abused and tortured detainees.

How does such egregious conduct occur?

Over a protracted period of time during the decisionmaking process, public administrators allow their perceptions concerning what their roles and responsibilities require to overrule ethical concerns. Adams and Balfour call this a “moral inversion.” This inversion “masks” administrative evil, potentially impacting people both within and beyond the organization.

When someone realizes or discovers the truth, the mask is removed and the evil exposed. In turn, the decisionmakers experience shame and guilt because it appears they willingly participated in evil. They might blame others, cite mitigating circumstances or engage in cover-ups. The alibi, “I was just doing my job,” also expresses this notion.

How not to respond to administrative evil

The most typical response to administrative evil is for governments, organizations or professional associations to design new structures aimed at preventing such evil from being perpetrated again. For example:

  • New laws, statutes and regulations are implemented.
  • Codes of conduct incorporate newly proscribed conduct.
  • Workshops are required of employees, which provide instruction about what they must not do. 

While these after-the-fact remedies clarify what is unethical, they represent what Rohr called a “low road” form of ethicality, as they do not inculcate the habit of ethical deliberation that can assist in fending off administrative evil. Furthermore, as Patrick Maclagan notes in Management and Morality, these remedies only challenge some administrators to become even more creative in finding ways to avoid getting caught.

How to prevent administrative evil:

The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) Code of Ethics requires ASPA members to “advance professional excellence.” To this end, public administrators first must strengthen their personal capabilities to conduct themselves competently and ethically and then encourage others’ professional development in their organizations. Practices fulfilling this requirement include:

  • Keeping up-to-date concerning emerging ethical issues, practices and potential problems that could affect one’s performance and accomplishing the organization’s mission.
  • Providing support and encouragement to others to upgrade their ethical competence and participate in professional activities and associations.
  • Allocating time and resources for the ethical development of students, interns, beginning professionals and other colleagues. 

As good as these practices are, preventing administrative evil requires public administrators to focus on developing the habit of ethical deliberation in themselves as well as their colleagues. To this end, Raile suggests incorporating ethics programs that highlight personal accountability and trustworthiness among every member of the organization, including administrators, as well as opportunities to interact with ethics officials.

While no administrative practice is guaranteed to prevent administrative evil, ethical deliberation and exposing those thoughts in public for commentary and critique during the decisionmaking process will go a long way to fend off, if not eliminate, administrative evil in public organizations. Then, as the habit of ethical deliberation is routinized in public service organizations, public administrators will be building a wealth of virtue and ethical capital in their organizations in a way that their professional knowledge, expertise, competence and effectiveness apparently do not.

Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a professor of public administration at Villanova University. 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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