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It’s Part of the Job

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

By Parisa Vinzant
November 11, 2021

Every public servant has the ethical duty to resist injustice and inequity perpetuated by their institutions or leaders. Under the American Society for Public Administration’s Practices to Promote the ASPA Code of Ethics, public servants must exercise courage and, “Resist political, organizational and personal pressures to compromise ethical integrity and principles.” Not only that, but public servants must, “Oppose all forms of discrimination,” “Strengthen social equity,” and promote initiatives to, “Reduce unfairness, injustice and inequality in society.” To, “Demonstrate personal integrity,” public servants must, “Accept individual responsibility for [their] actions and the consequences of [their] actions.”

ASPA’s code of ethics clearly outlines the inherent principle-based responsibilities that public servants must meet, particularly as it relates to dealing with unethical situations in their work or unethical directives from their managers or leaders. A 1985 article by Brian Thompson challenged the traditional ethic of neutrality for public servants, arguing that administrative ethics are possible only if public servants apply moral principles to political life. Public servants cannot in good conscience defer responsibility for their actions—especially when those actions cause undue burdens or harm on already marginalized people that the agency serves—by explaining it as merely, “Following orders.”

When public servants exile conscience from their work, it can contribute to the rise of 1) administrative evil—characterized in a 2020 book by Danny Balfour, Guy Adams, and Ashley Nickels as individuals unknowingly engaging in acts of evil by fulfilling their organizational responsibilities—and 2) administrative racism—characterized in a 2018 article by Anthony Starke, Nuri Heckler and Janiece Mackey as individuals knowingly relying on technical rationalizations such as efficiency to avoid tackling inherent racism in policies, outcomes and systems, which disproportionally harm Black, Indigenous and People of Color.

A July 2020 article by Brian Williams and Brendin Duckett notes that demographic shifts and rising political polarization in the United States have shaken public trust and support for democracy, which underscores the importance of, “Public administrators to be prepared, equipped, empowered and principled to prevent the dystopian results that can emerge at the juncture of administrative evil and administrative racism.” The authors describe that intersection as the, “Convergence of callousness,” where public perception (social construction), public policy (administrative evil) and professional practices (administrative racism) interact to perpetuate, “Discrimination, oppression and injustice.”

The ethics code from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) recognizes this and requires public servants to fully inform and advise their governing body, “Of the anticipated effects of a decision on people in their jurisdiction, especially if specific groups may be disproportionally harmed or helped.” ASPA’s code of ethics takes this further by including theexplicit duty to proactively improve or eliminate unethical policies and laws.

To truly serve in the public’s interest, public servants must push back against unethical, unjust and inequitable actions by their public sector leaders and organizations. If resolving the problem directly with their supervisor or through an internal ethical resource is not possible, then there are two well-known courses of action: public servants can resign their positions; or report ethical wrongdoing to an internal or external watchdog. However, these options are both reactive in nature. The former option can be considered face-saving for all parties, but does nothing to correct the harm done. Depending on whether the reporting is done anonymously or not (complete anonymity cannot necessarily be guaranteed), the latter option may have severe consequences for the public servant ranging from being fired or forced out of a job, to character assassination, and being formally or informally blacklisted from obtaining a different job at another agency or within the same field.

Yet, the most optimal route to navigating ethical dilemmas is for public servants to develop their own personal code of ethics before joining a public sector organization. Further, public servants should seek applicable ethical resources, including ethical analysis and problem-solving approaches, and to close any knowledge gaps. These actions would clarify the ethical lines that the public servant can and won’t cross, which is helpful before an ethical dilemma arises. Clear ethical principles and values also become the compass that helps them navigate the ethical gray zones in which so many of these dilemmas reside.

Public servants should expect clashes over ethical values to arise within the institutions they serve. The idea that tradeoffs are necessary when considering efficiency, effectiveness and social/racial equity ignores the fact that these values not only can coexist, but when coordinated serve to strengthen public service organizations.According to Susan Gooden’s 2014 book, Race and Social Equity: A Nervous Area of Government, “Public sector organizations share a value commitment to justice,” But embedding that commitment organizationally can be challenging since it must be an integral part of outcomes, procedures and overall systems. Interestingly, survey results reported in James Svara’s 2015 book, the Ethics Primer, reveal that only 38% of surveyed public servants said promoting social justice was always important as an ethical value compared to 65% who said promoting effectiveness was always important. The same survey found that exercising courage was a value considered always important by 48%—less than half of respondents.

It takes vigilance and courage for public servants to resist administrative evil and racism but doing so is part of the job description. However, to better face the inevitable ethical battles that threaten the well-being of the public, we must prepare now and set our compass to map a new way forward. 


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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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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