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Professional Duty to Say “No”

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

By Michael Abels
July 16, 2018

Public administrators are expected to be stewards of the public trust. In fulfilling this role, administrators’ exhibit the ethical values identified with positive public character. These values include honesty, caring, supporting the public interest, fairness, respect, accountability, professional excellence. These values, as public service norms, have served as foundation stones as the nation constructed a dynamic sense of national identify. They have also been a key asset that has allowed the United States to call itself an exceptional nation.

But America has gravely fragmented into tribes, without citizens or the field of public administration seriously questioning if America truly possesses or maybe has lost, a central core of values that represent the public character. Historically, to build and develop the public character, public administration has focused on the nation’s broad ethical values and incorporated these values within a code of ethics for professional associations. These include the American Society for Public Administration, International City-County Managers Association and International Association of Chiefs of Police. These values are centered on the deontological approach to ethics which holds that administrators should exhibit universal values including honesty, personal integrity, furthering social equity, as universal truths, and should follow these values regardless of the personal consequences that could befall them by their doing so. However, as America socially, politically and culturally fragments, our national political leadership, by action as well as policy, instruct us to turn away from these values and view our social, economic and political interactions through a short term, individualistic win-lose paradigm. Viewing public administration through the lens of this new paradigm involves a new set of values that reflect a teleological or ends justify the means approach to administration. Results of this paradigm are seen at the national level of public administration with presidential propagation of lies about actions and policy being normalized behavior, utilization of psychological torture in the form of separating immigrant children from their parents used as a policy tool, statements and actions taken by the President interpreted as racist and opening racial chasms within civic society, unfettered political corruption by presidential cabinet officers, e.g. EPA Administrator Pruitt, unabashedly taking gifts and soliciting economic favors from individuals representing interests that are regulated by his agency.  While we might believe that such examples of ethical corruption are confined within the federal government, the norms set at the federal level pass through to all levels of government. A poignant example is the separation of immigrant children from their families. While it is a federal policy, in many cases It is state and local law enforcement and managers that implement federal policy and complete the action to separate families.

Public administration and those serving in the field find themselves at a cross roads. If we as individual public administrators, or we collectively as the profession of public administration, perform without objection in this unethical, win at any cost environment; where positive public character is denigrated, then we can expect an outcome where the continual decline in the public confidence and support for government and public administration will be the unchangeable reality. So what actions should individual public administrators, as well as the profession of public administration pursue to reestablish ethical norms?

Personal & Professional Association Actions to Protect Ethical Norms

Individual public administrators must match personal, professional, and institutional regime values (constitutional, laws) against practiced organizational values. When organizational values practiced by those in a public leadership position conflict with other values, each individual administrator must decide the degree their personal, professional or the regime values can be compromised before counter action such as resignation, refusing orders or other truth to power action is taken. But public administrators must have a supportive foundation and guidepost for their actions. This foundation must come from the professional associations e.g. ASPA, ICMA, IACP, which have established the professional set of values that broadly serve as the collective guide for our professional behavior. Our professional organizations must be leaders and be proactive in publicly pointing out the ethical violations committed at the highest level of our government, as well as the public organizations which implement unethical policies. Our associations must put truth to power in calling out and censuring unethical actions, while concurrently stating expected ethical conduct. The broad marketing of ethical values should be a primary mission for each association. And critically important, our associations must provide open public support for individual administrators who courageously take ethical actions that puts them at risk in their position.

Unfortunately, I do not see our professional associations currently taking the forceful public positions or actions required if we are to protect the integrity and excellence of public administration. The time now is to act, both personally as individual public administrators, and organizationally through our professional associations. Failure to stop and reverse the unethical actions being normalized through the current presidential administration is, or will have negative consequences on the public’s confidence in the profession of public administration. Ultimately the loss of public confidence and the degradation of the professional civil service will erode the very system of government public administrators take an oath to uphold and defend.


Author: Michael Abels, Career city manager and retired Lecturer in Public Administration, University of Central Florida. Currently adjunct instructor at Stetson University.  Recently published a text-workbook through Routledge Taylor & Francis Group titled Policy Making in the Public Interest: A Text and Workbook for Local Government. Author contact email is [email protected]. Twitter @ abelsmike

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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.

One Response to Professional Duty to Say “No”

  1. Robert G. Joyce Reply

    July 16, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    Yes, the article is right, but I don’t see a remedy right now. When I was responsible for 65 hardworking young men and women spread across the country, we had a mutual understanding. Actions that do not advance our mission are “stupid” and actions outside our authorities are “illegal.” Therefore we don’t do “SnL” – stupid and illegal. They all easily remembered “SnL.” It actually became somewhat popular.

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