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Whistleblowing: A Necessary Duty

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

By Parisa Vinzant
May 5, 2023

While promises for racial equity and justice following the brutal 2020 murder of George Floyd remain largely unfulfilled, and coordinated state-level attacks rolling back rights for women, LGBTQ and Black, Indigenous and People of Color continue unabated, our need for public servants to act with integrity and fulfill their ethical mandates is acute. The essence of that duty is captured in the first tenet of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) Code of Ethics to “put service to the public above service to oneself.”

As public servants in this critical time, what is our responsibility when we uncover—or are tasked with implementing—a potentially discriminatory policy that has implications for a specific marginalized community group? At the local level, there’s unlikely to be a prescribed action or process for reporting such concerns as there is for fraud or corruption.

But Practices to Promote the ASPA Code of Ethics provides clarity on our duty to respond:

  • Promote Ethical Organization: “seek to correct instances of wrongdoing or report them to superiors. If remedies cannot be assured by reporting wrongdoing internally, seek external sources or agencies for review and action.”
  • Uphold the Constitution and the Law: “improve laws and policies to promote the public good,” while “improving or eliminating laws and policies that are unethical, counterproductive or obsolete.”
  • Strengthen Social Equity: “reduce unfairness, injustice and inequality in society” and “oppose all forms of discrimination” while promoting “other efforts to reduce disparities in outcomes and increase the inclusion of underrepresented groups.”

So, public servants do have the broad ethical duty to respond if they become aware of a discriminatory policy. But as a local public servant, the how is tricky.

Before reporting to any internal superiors or hotlines, it is vital to assume you’re a possible whistleblower and take steps to protect yourself. Even if you’re a non-union city employee, you may have protections from at-will firings due to a public policy exception, but this must be fought for after being fired. As Stephen Martin Kohn cautions in his book, The New Whistleblower Handbook, “Most whistleblower cases begin with a straightforward report to a supervisor concerning a potential problem. Hence it is never too early to take steps to protect oneself from retaliation.” Compared to the federal level, local public employees have fewer and more complex whistleblower protection laws. Also, contrary to guidance provided by various public administration literature and textbooks, exhausting internal reporting channels first before external whistleblowing is not necessarily advised or safe for local public servants. According to Kohn, in many states there’s greater protection for external whistleblowing for local public servants rather than internal whistleblowing if the concern being disclosed is related to “official duties” because of the precedent set in the 2006 Garcetti case. That’s why getting legal advice is crucial.

Helpful resources for finding attorneys includes the National Whistleblower Center and Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto. Check the statute of limitation clock, as it varies by state whistleblower laws.

Do your own analysis before making any decisions. Engage with resources provided by James Svara such as the Ethics Problem-Solving Model and the Ethics Triangle as outlined in his book The Ethics Primer. Review Rosemary O’Leary’s book, The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government, as she provides a helpful list of ten questions to consider before blowing the whistle. O’Leary’s question—”Am I correct?”—is a necessary first step. It may be extremely challenging to know for certain but gather as much information and from as many reliable sources as possible, but without tipping your hand.

It is important to identify if there’s legal, ethical or a mix of issues involved. If you become reasonably certain there are legal issues involved, immediately seek the advice of an attorney. If that’s not possible, then arm yourself with as much knowledge from books and resources and seek help from trusted family or friends. After all, whistleblowing could cause loss of your job and reputation, and stress to your family.

Also, research and identify legal and ethical reporting mechanisms within your city and state and at the federal level to determine what, if any, relevant options are available. Based on the uniqueness of the dilemma, there may be few options. For example, if the discriminatory policy was drafted and/or signed off on by the Offices of the City Attorney and City Manager, your internal reporting options are likely nil. The safest reporting option is likely external, whether to an elected local or state official, to a state agency, media organization, to a civil rights organization and/or nonprofit serving the population affected by the discriminatory policy. Depending on your state’s whistleblower laws, anonymity may be your safest bet. Ultimately, resigning your position rather than implementing a discriminatory policy could be an option, which may bring attention to the problem as Svara states and “strengthen political forces that will correct it.”

If you report within a hierarchical structure, you still have the power to say no or resist implementation of an unethical, illegal or discriminatory policy. Too much harm has been done in the past in such projects as the Tuskegee study or the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II to imagine that ethical considerations are not the responsibility of public servants at all levels. Whistleblowing is a necessary check against unethical, illegal and/or discriminatory actions and can restore integrity to a department, city, agency and the public service field.

Author: Parisa Vinzant, MPA, is a public sector strategist and equity/inclusion consultant. She served as a technology and innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Parisa applies an intersectional equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging from ethics, education, democracy, technology, and community engagement. All views are hers alone. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant (Twitter).

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