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When Public Administrators Are Unjustly Stigmatized as Unethical

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 25, 2019

What do public administrators need to know, and do, when stakeholders unjustly stigmatize them as unethical?


What do public administrators need to know?

When stigmatized this way, public administrators need to know, first, not to take it personally but to realize that the categories of ethical and unethical are neither neat nor fixed. Positioned at one of two ends of a continuum, those judgments differentiate a, “Zone of ethical legitimacy,” (or a “virtuous” administrator), from a, “Zone of ethical illegitimacy,” (or an “unvirtuous” administrator).

Knowing this, public administrators can identify other characteristics associated with those unjust judgments:

  • They aren’t unanimous. Some stakeholders disagree; others are indifferent.
  • The categories are fluid and framed by the situation and circumstances, from less to more ethical to unethical. They also contain nuance, changing as the situation and circumstances warrant.
  • The boundaries are blurred and dependent upon the perception of those making the judgments.
  • Location and chronology are influential. An unethical action at one time, in one place, and for one administrator may be ethical at another time, in another place, for the same administrator.

This knowledge enables public administrators to assess what those judgments mean more accurately.

What do public administrators need to do?

Political scientists suggest that administrators should create an agenda for change, mapping the political terrain, networking and building coalitions, bargaining or negotiating and utilizing principled negotiating.

While these political strategies assist in contextualizing those unjust judgments, they don’t consider ethical ambiguity, “The circumstances where the line demarcating legitimate and illegitimate conduct is gray and nuanced, not black or white.”

Concerning ethical ambiguity, a consensus among scholars of business administration, science, medicine and social work would have administrators respond by formulating an ethical strategy:

What does ethical leadership require?

This ethical strategy offers practical guidance about what ethical leaders should do to contend effectively with ethical ambiguity.

First, develop conversancy with virtue ethics and its application. The ethical leadership challenge isn’t moral, as in, “What’s the right thing to do?” Rather it’s ethical, as in, “What does virtue require of me?” The former implies a do and don’t do rote choice by “following the rules.” The latter implies considering what ethical principles require in light of the situation and circumstances by identifying what’s fitting and proper. For these deliberations, the ASPA Code of Ethics provides an invaluable tool.

Second, consult with stakeholders. Quite likely, those stakeholders stigmatizing public administrators as unethical sincerely believe they are promoting the common good. Concurrently, they’re also advancing their self-interest, either seeking to preserve the status quo or to change it.

In these consultations, public administrators shouldn’t aim at brokering a resolution. More substantively, they should aim to understand how the unjust judgment reveals interpretations of facts using divergent ethical principles. This understanding will assist public administrators to enact an ethical strategy, pedagogy in ethical ambiguity. This strategy is a pedagogically focused exercise of ethical leadership, emphasizing virtue and aiming to increase civil capital within the community.

Civic capital is the byproduct of deliberation wherein public administrators engage stakeholders in identifying common goals that meet individual as well as the community’s needs, interests and aspirations. Irrespective of a community’s demographic composition, the objective is to build the kind of formal and informal relationships, networks and capacities that stakeholders will then use to make collaborative decisions that advance the common good.

More importantly, increased civic capital will evidence itself in shared vision and values among stakeholders. This will motivate stakeholders to achieve greater equity through principled decision making. In turn, these results will promote more inclusive leadership, collaborative institutions, diversity and equity, authentic communication and a culture of engagement.

The objective: Advancing the common good

When stakeholders unjustly stigmatize public administrators as unethical, navigating the ethical ambiguity that would otherwise leave their communities divided, they need to remember that the objective is not to recreate a utopia but to make good decisions.

This exercise of ethical leadership will curb bitterness. It also will facilitate a better understanding about what virtue requires of all stakeholders.

Most importantly, implementing the strategy of pedagogy in ethical ambiguity is how public administrators construct in their communities those, “Laboratories of democracy,” about which Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in his dissent to New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann.


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