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It’s Part of the Job: Part II

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

By Parisa Vinzant
January 4, 202

For public servants who want to lead on equity and ethics, it is imperative that they proactively formulate their ethical orientation and develop their own personal code of professional ethics. Yet, with the primary goals of efficiency and effectiveness still so pervasive within the field of public administration—often at the expense of the value of social and racial equity—public servants must prepare for the inevitable clashes between these values before ethical lapses arise.

As proposed in Part I of this short column series, “It’s Part of the Job,” the most optimal route to navigating ethical dilemmas is for public servants to develop their own codes of ethics before joining a public sector organization. But it can seem daunting to create such a code that is clear on ethical lines, includes supporting resources, and that is also flexible enough to address a variety of complex ethical challenges with potential equity implications.

Where governmental institutions have played a dominant or supporting role in the creation of systemic inequities and injustices, there is often strong resistance towards equitable change. However, public servants know from the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) ethics code and practices that they have the explicit duty to proactively improve or eliminate unethical policies and laws as well as to, “Resist political, organizational and personal pressures to compromise ethical integrity.”

It may be helpful to explore one way a public servant might approach the development of an individual code of ethics. An important first step would be to identify accessible ethical resources. James Svara’s 2015 book, the Ethics Primer, helps public servants to grapple with ethical responsibilities and duties as they relates to specific roles by reflecting on and expanding the depth and breadth of their codes through targeted learning activities. The process begins with introspective work to understand an individual’s baseline ethics code and then compare that code to best practices research. Public servants are then empowered with problem-solving tools such as the, “Ethics Triangle,” and ethical analyses to work through any dilemmas that may arise.

It may be helpful here to delve more deeply into this topic by exploring a real-life example from a woman in mid-career public service that Svara would call a, “Value-based ethicist,” who is, “Proactively committed to ethics.” An initial code of ethics would likely reveal that this individual had infused duty-based ethical responsibilities when serving in the public’s best interest, for example, setting an ethical tenet, “To be accountable for all decisions, actions and inactions.” As Svara notes, “Responsibility and accountability go hand in hand,” which necessitates a willingness by this public servant to be held to account (internally to self and externally) for all actions and non-actions.

However, even with varying degrees of autonomy and responsibility, the public servant still belongs to a larger organization that may take an action that the public servant does not have the authority to stop or change. The public servant would recognize the unacceptability of donning what Svara describes as, “Ethical blinders to not see the results to which,” her actions (or inactions) contributed to unethical or inequitable results. This individual would likely use one of the other provisions in her personal ethical code to strive to, “Model a speak up ethical culture and nudge for ethics in all my interactions with city staff and members of the public.”

The ethical guidelines of many public sector agencies lack robust language on the responsibility of public servants towards noncompliance to unethical orders, causing this public servant extreme distress to break from colleagues and not follow orders. But to stay true to her moral conscience, this public servant would have to muster the courage to resist unethical pressures by practicing another ethical tenet, “To persistently speak and act in the public’s interest even when I’m the lone voice.” According to this public servant’s personal code of professional ethics, leaving employment and/or reporting unethical conduct or bosses must always remain on the table.

Yet, such a public servant’s ethical orientation can be isolating and conflict-producing, so how does an individual persist over the longer-term in public service? One clear answer is to hone the capacity for leading with an orientation towards relational trust.

Relational trust is central to building ethical capacity and culture within organizations and with community partners. It is also essential for building the liberatory relationships and collaborations that are necessary to achieve substantive and transformative equity work. In a 2017 paper Liz Weaver advocates for the application of a trust lens that is relational in nature to the work that public servants carry out, but states that this work, “Begins with introspection and learning to trust ourselves.” The National Equity Project’s liberatory design process emphasizes that relational trust is the glue and that teams, “Must invest in each other to develop trust, share openly and collaborate authentically.”

Thus, a value-based ethicist’s best chance of long-term survival and success in public service depends on the ability to forge liberatory alliances with colleagues, friends and community members. Without this liberatory collaboration, the public servant is more likely to fail in executing another of her ethical tenets, “To correct prior harm from past policies/programs on our most vulnerable communities and BIPOC communities.”

If transforming the status quo of inequity in government is the aim, then the most promising tool that public servants have are their personal ethics codes. That is, if they choose to create and use them.

Author: Parisa Vinzant, MPA, is an equity/inclusion consultant, strategist, and technology/innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Parisa applies a social/racial equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging from ethics, education, democracy, technology, and community engagement. Any views expressed herein are hers alone. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant

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