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Navigating the Escalator of Ethical Decisionmaking

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

By Richard M. Jacobs
July 31, 2021

For public administrators, making good decisions isn’t just a process but an imperative. Yet, research suggests that it is subordinates who oftentimes make the best decisions.

To avoid making erroneous decisions, Victoria Medvec believes administrators need to navigate what she calls the, “Escalator of decisionmaking.”

Escalating decisions up and down the organization

In theory, administrators make the higher-risk, mission critical decisions while delegating lower-risk, mission neutral decisions to subordinates. Focusing upon resolving critical issues, administrators aren’t distracted by the kind of problems subordinates are better positioned to solve.

In practice, those decisions oftentimes escalate up the organization for two reasons:

  1. Hoovering”—Administrators act as metaphorical “vacuum cleaners” sweeping up even the lowest-risk decisions.
  2. Trepidation—Subordinates fear accepting responsibility and being held accountable for making even lower-risk decisions.

Yet, escalating decisions up the organization can exact costs that negatively impact its functioning:

  • Wasted time—Reporting those decisions back down may entail multiple briefings.
  • Increased error—An administrator’s lack of “hands on” experience can increase the likelihood of error.
  • Failing to build leadership density—Escalating decisions up deprives subordinates of opportunities to hone their decisionmaking skills and to experience themselves as trusted and valued colleagues.
  • Wasted cognitive resources—Those decisions spend the administrator’s intellectual capital that’s better reserved for higher-risk decisions.

Reversing direction

To reverse the escalator’s upward flow, administrators must assess the risk associated with decisions by answering four questions.

1. Who should be involved?

While administrators theoretically make the high-risk decisions and delegate lower-risk decisions, practice indicates delegating problems is more nuanced.

To reverse decisionmaking downward, administrators must prioritize decisions in terms of the threat posed: The higher the error associated with the risk, the higher up to escalate decisions.

Plus, delegating lower-risk decisions downward preserves an administrator’s intellectual capital and, as Medvec notes, develops subordinates’ human capital.

2. How much time is needed?

The negative impacts and costs associated with erroneous, higher-risk decisions are vastly greater than those associated with erroneous, lower-risk decisions.

Reversing decisionmaking downward, “Inverts the risk continuum”—as administrators consciously spend less time making lower-risk decisions. That frees up time to attend to the core questions associated with higher-risk decisions.

Medvec observes that these administrators increase the likelihood that subordinates will make good decisions.

3. How much certainty is required?

Caution can be virtuous. But it’s a vice when postponing a decision exacts a cost.

For this reason, administrators must assess the potential impacts associated with an erroneous decision. For example:

  • Erroneous, lower-risk decisions present minimal risk and high positive benefits. Being overly cautious about escalating those decisions downward doesn’t make much sense.
  • Erroneous, higher-risk decisions are potentially devastating. Exercising caution about whether to escalate those decisions downward also doesn’t make much sense.

With no hard and fast rules or guarantees, Medvec suggests reserving one’s intellectual capital for higher-risk decisions, especially when the risk error and the cost associated with caution are high. This strategy assists to ensure that administrators will escalate lower-risk decisions downward.

4. How much error is tolerable?

Errors can contribute to organizational learning. But, tolerating error generates a quandary down the escalator as subordinates will wonder, “Will we be punished or rewarded?”

Administrators can make the error associated with lower-risk decisions more tolerable by “de-risking” decisions—escalating decisionmaking and the risk continuum downward. Why? Administrators demonstrate they value the innovation and the kind of learning that’s required for subordinates to solve problems for themselves. (One caveat: Not so regarding higher-risk decisions.)

No amount of analysis can eliminate risk. But, when administrators assess risk and focus upon core questions, Medvec maintains, the number of good decisions increases.

But what about making ethical decisions?

Forging ethical culture

Escalating lower-risk decisions downward eliminates, “Hoovering” and, as ASPA’s Code of Ethics notes, “Hold[s] individuals…accountable for their conduct and support[s] these procedures with clear reporting of activities and accomplishments.” It also ensures, “The strategic, effective and efficient use of resources,”—especially intellectual capital—by, “Preventing all forms of mismanagement or waste,” as well as encouraging, “Open expression of views.”

Reversing the escalator delegates authority and responsibility to subordinates to make ethical decisions and to learn from them. As the Code also notes, this strategy, “[Supports] merit principles that promote excellence, competence and professionalism,” and, “Advances professional excellence.”

Navigating the escalator of ethical decisionmaking, public administrators can build a learning organization whose members engage in hands-on, professional development in ethics as they hone their capability to make purpose-driven, virtuous decisions.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Immediate Past Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance and former Acquisitions Editor for Public Integrity. 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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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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