Ethics and Public Administration

RosenbergBy Jeremy Rosenberg, 2016 EMU MPA Alum

An esteemed professor in the EMU MPA program once poignantly stated to his class: “Ethics is hard.” While this may seem simplistic, it is nonetheless the truth, and ethics is made more difficult by the fact that it is often taken for granted. We envision ourselves being the voice of reason. We are thus able to reassure ourselves, “If I were working in the department responsible for the Flint water fiasco, surely things would have been different.”

Historically, ethics is the turf of philosophers. As they are wont to do, philosophers have taken a complex issue and made it exceedingly more complex. During my time in the MPA program, I engaged in an independent study that examined how Chinese philosophy contributed to what we today call public administration. I chose China for several reasons. China is a large, diverse, ancient culture with a need for quality administration on a large scale. I felt there was something of a western slight toward China in our current curriculum. After all, great Chinese thinkers were pondering effective administration long before Max Weber was born. I also wanted my study to be relevant to the future, and we are fast approaching a Chinese moment in world history. Finally, on a personal note, Chinese philosophy is far more accessible (albeit at times cryptic) than the indigestible word salads tossed together by many in the western philosophical tradition.

My studies led me to a Confucian philosopher named Xun Zi. In an effort to settle the age-old debate over whether or not humans are inherently good or evil, Xun Zi chose a third path — one that endures over time and is not without postmodern sensibilities. Humans are neither good nor evil, as we are governed by an indifferent, morally neutral universe. We are therefore raised to be good or evil based on the culture that exists around us. Racism is a perfect example. A child raised in a tolerant and accepting environment will grow up to be tolerant and accepting. A child raised in a hateful, bigoted environment will act out their existence accordingly.

Organizational culture is indicative of behavior in public administration as well. If the organization has a culture focused on delivering services to the people in an efficient, organized, and compassionate manner, then the services will be thus delivered. If the organizational culture is disjointed, disorganized, and allows for the tendencies of greed or avarice, then the organization in question will be disloyal to the people, or worse, corrupt.

The VA scandal is a perfect example of negative organizational culture yielding horrific results. The Veterans Administration is charged with a sacred duty — providing quality medical care to the people who were willing to lay down their lives and liberty in service to our country. Unfortunately, the culture at the specific office in the scandal was one more focused on achieving performance measures than adhering to their duty. Negative culture yielded negative results.

in Flint, under the Snyder Administration, the appointed Emergency Manager was mired in a culture that was almost singularly focused on reducing the cost of government. This led to decisions that made the health and well-being of the people of Flint a secondary concern. It is a clear violation of societal ethical standards to place the health of the citizenry subordinate to modest financial gain.

Our MPA program has recently placed greater emphasis on case studies, and the good news is that these studies place the students deep into ethical minefields. This helps correct one of the great misunderstandings about ethics, namely that ethics is simply a choice between right and wrong. Like anything else in life, ethics takes practice to perfect. It is a lifelong journey of self-discovery and analysis, which is why philosophers have so enjoyed writing about it. As public administrators, we can protect ourselves by assessing the culture of the organizations we inhabit. The mission and goals may seem noble, but too often there is misalignment between goals and outcomes. The professional, ethical administrator would do well to frequently re-evaluate where their organization stands from an ethical perspective, and take nothing for granted.

After all, ethics is hard.

Jeremy Rosenberg left a quasi-lucrative career in show business to pursue an MPA. He graduated from the EMU MPA program in August 2016, and is currently seeking employment. Since the St. Louis Cardinals already have a centerfielder, he would be happy to pursue a career in government or with a local non-profit organization.

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