[Topic 16] The Relationship Between Ethics and Public Administration

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Public Administration and Ethics: A Prologue to a Preface

Ma. Charmagne G. Tamayo

Going back to our initial discussions regarding the history of the trends of thoughts relating both to the study and practice of Public Administration in the United States, we noted that Dwight Waldo is one of those scholars who made their names during the period of Social Science Heterodoxy, which covers the years from 1947 to 1967.

To recapitulate, this era is characterized by the victory of the American nation over the tough economic setbacks caused by the Great Depression, as well as its successful suppression of the Fascist regime in Italy. These upshots eventually made the U.S. one of the leaders of the international political arena, along with its all-time rival, the communist Russia.

One of the significant effects of the Cold War in the local U.S. affairs is the stimulation of the stamina for administrative state-building, as manifested by the creation of new demands for government training programs and the expansion of funding for administrative research.

Still another renowned contribution of this epoch is the emergence of Robert Dahl's three problems that challenged the science of public administration, more notable of which is the clamor for a much broader study of the dynamics of human behavior within organizational settings, through the incorporation of the social sciences, henceforth giving birth to the idea of institutional effectiveness.

In summary, the author first dealt with the presentation of important areas within the study of public administrative ethics that should be addressed in order to realize the creation of what he calls a systematic treatise about the field. According to him, the two major obstacles to the aforementioned are, one, the sheer broadness and difficulty of discussing the discipline, and second, the absence of concurrence regarding the meaning of its basic ideas.

With these, he proceeded by tackling the fundamental concepts that deal with public administrative ethics.

Citing the author's ideas, he said that the distinction between public and private morality is often overlooked. He clarified that the former doesn't just refer to the simple obedience of the law, but pertains more about the decisions and actions done in the name of and is legitimated by the “public ” or the “nation,” the social grouping that is larger than the family and the clan. He emphasized that it is inevitable for such public acts to pose conflicts with the moral stance held by individuals, and the consequent dilemma faced by any instrumentality of the government anchored upon this principle.

With these, he continued by differentiating the notions of the moral authority of the state and of the higher law. Simply put, the appeal to the latter implies that some form of ethical guidance exists above both the individual and the government. Examples of this are natural and religious doctrines.

Historically speaking, this idea emerged after the decline of the Greek city-states and during the Hellenistic period when the belief for the equality of humans as humans, and the assertion that some state of personhood, as distinguished from that of the polity, was greatly emphasized.

Such a predisposition found its biggest challenger only with the development of the modern states that consequently reinforced its right to determine the moral rules to which an individual must adhere. With this can be related the concept of the reason of state as being the extreme form of public morality that upholds state power, at the expense of most, if not all, criteria of individual behavior.

After defining the basic concepts of administrative ethics, the author proceeded by giving a rough sketch of the taxonomy of the various types and sources of moral responsibilities for a public administrator. To enumerate some, this include the obligations that emanate from the constitution, the nation, the organizational-bureaucratic norm, the profession, the family, the self, the humanity, and the Supreme Being, among others. With this, the author further illustrated the disorderly nature of the field, and with such, suggested some possible ways of resolving the problem.

In relation to the aforementioned, he introduced the idea of navigation instruments and highlighted the rationale and advantages of using them as a preliminary step in organizing a united, stable theory of administrative ethics. He asserted that these instruments should be characterized by, one, the ability to relay an historical account of the moral problems that need to be treated; another by the openness to adopt the techniques and methods utilized by the related social sciences; still another by the treatment of ethics as a self-aware discipline; and lastly by the appeal to relevant religious doctrines.

Now believing that the most worthwhile and the most interesting questions that connect administration and ethics revolve around the treatise and practice of hierarchy, the author explicated on its inherent tendencies to promote both morality and immorality within an organization.

To prove his point, he said that hierarchical structures strengthen the values associated with the old-line Public Administration, such as the ideals of democracy and the three E's (economy, efficiency, effectiveness). Viewed this way, it can be said that hierarchy pushes for the centralization of power, and thus the perpetuation of a superior-subordinate relationship where individuals are tied by the electoral system. In such a set-up, responsibility is said to flow from the top down, while power moves from the populace up to their representatives.

On the other hand, foreign and business practice has it that democracy could be more highly upheld through power decentralization wherein which smaller units would be able to foster a more effective and more efficient delivery of socially equitable services, primarily due to the fact that the people are considered as “clients, ” whose will and control are more prioritized.

As contended by the author, the overall thought of the article centered around its subtitle, “A Prologue to a Preface. ” But to what do the words “prologue” and “preface” pertain? Basically, the author's observations of the current trends about the administrative morality during the last century constitute the prologue of the article. What he essentially said here is that there is a pervasive phenomenon of moral decay among the administrators, as typified by their negligence and attitude of indifference toward the importance of ethical inquiry and adherence to ethical codes. Now the next significant question to throw is: “What brought about this stiffening of the heart of public administrators toward ethics?” With this, the author has one key word to give: ambiguity.

As contended earlier, the realm of administrative ethics has always been bombarded by concepts that are by nature very prone to change their meaning in accordance to the dictates of the context wherein which they operate. To wit, it'll be remembered that it is an inevitable outcome of serving the public to face the moral dilemma of “sinning” in their name.

Launching more deeply, it would be clear that this confusion is actually due to the absence of agreement about the definition of basic terminologies that are frequently used in the field.

Logically, it follows that the main reason for the lack of a stable theory about the study and practice of ethics in public administration is the simple absence of a common understanding of the application and context of its fundamental concepts.

To further complicate the matter, there is also this continuously growing openness to both the philosophical and anti-philosophical spirit of science, in exchange for the deviation from religious doctrines. One consequence of this is the proliferation of the number, sizes, and variety of organizations, an event otherwise called as the Organizational Revolution.

This phenomenon is still being bombarded by the unhampered rise of the awareness of the science of administration itself, causing a novel scientific approach towards its study and an increase in administrative technology.

Another reality worthy to be mentioned here is the positive relationship that exists between the level of an hierarchical position and the weight of the responsibilities that goes along with it. Simply put, the higher one is on the position pyramid, the greater are the risks to have a moral breakdown, a condition that is much more felt within a formal public organizations than in any other type of such.

Moreover, the continuous growth of a gray area between the public-private realms wherein contemporary systems of organizational and legal networks mix, makes it even the more problematic to ascertain not just the tasks, but the guiding standards by which to judge the responsiveness of administrators as well.

Now confronted with all of these difficulties, I personally concur with the author about the necessity of using navigation instruments in the struggle to come up with an integrated treatise of the ethics of public administration.

Perhaps it would help to us in configuring the pressing need to resolve all of the aforementioned conflicts within the discipline by glancing back at the words uttered by F. William Howton. Although this quotation originally referred to the alienating effects of traditional bureaucracy, I believe that it can also impress unto us the same dehumanizing force that an inconsistent ethical theory of administration bestows upon virtually all of those who are engaged in the field.

Following the same thread of reasoning, an administrator who's got an ever-versatile code of ethics that almost permits him to have his own personal interpretation of its tenets resembles the same morally unbounded man who's role as a public servant turns him into a passive functionary.

So how do they become an authority of their own? They act in the name of the public; and who can topple them down from the seat of authority if their ways are legitimated by the no less than the same collectivity that put them there?

As we can see, this dehumanizing disease can actually transform a public administrator from being just an ordinary individual to both a perennially morally threatened and morally threatening public servant. But nonetheless, he's still a hapless prisoner of the ambiguous world of administrative ethics, another proof to the unavoidable destruction asserted by Barnard.

True enough, if we'll only be more acquainted with the historical roots of the confusion pertaining to the boundaries that distinguish the realm of public from private morality, it'll probably provide us with a sound guidance in predicting the direction where this present condition might head.

Same with the feasibility of utilizing the relevant social sciences, most especially the field of political science, the mother discipline of public administration. As we've often seen, the history of this young field has always been colored by its rebellious characteristic. Perhaps by being able to ascertain first the profound causes of this tendency, we'll be able to know why this same field seems to be having once again a hard time reconciling its precepts with that of the ethical world.

Another is the field of economics. As mentioned earlier, the advocates of the New Public Administration Movement fuses the traditions normally found in the business world with that of the administration. Maybe if the discipline would be able to prove the suitability of altering the traditional bureaucratic configurations, at least of public offices, in enhancing the application of the principles of equitably distributing the rewards of production, then we could expect for the arrival of new insights about the relative results of adopting hierarchical structures toward the development or retardation of adherence to moral statutes, as well as the promotion or greater discouragement of ethical discussions within organizations.

In the same way, the sound analysis of different ethical theories could best be achieved by treating ethics as being a discipline well grounded enough both upon its ontological and epistemological aspect, and therefore capable of rendering a holistic survey of the peculiarities, as well as their possible merits and demerits upon incorporation to the administrative field.

Lastly, the constant inspection of the relevant ethical dogmas of different religions can also widen our horizons with respect to an individual's conceptions of supernatural law as against personal and secular authority.

Indeed, the prevalence of moral decay among public administrators is one problem that needs rigorous discipline and commitment on our part to continue the endeavor to study the effects and possible resolution of the ambiguities, as well as the ways that we can device in order to make it more adopted to the present, and actually, more flexible to the future trends that will still mark the history of public administrative ethics. The framework has at least already been done. All that we need to do is to continuously test the durability and reliability of the proposals forwarded here.