Ethical challenges pervade our daily lives. It may be as simple as
the restaurant bill that did not include dessert. It may be as
complex as contractual conflicts of interest coupled with brutal
political battles in a large government agency. The ethical
challenge knows no scope. It only knows outcome. Are our choices
When is the last time you faced an ethical dilemma? It may not have
been a life or death issue, just something that shook the arrow on
your ethical compass. Here are a few recent examples of choices
made by those in the public service.
- Extensive breaches of security were recently discovered, some
dating back as far as 2008, at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration
Services. Hacking by internal staff violated federal security
regulations and gave wrongdoers access to files and confidential
emails containing contracting information, policy data, and other
- Though often viewed as among the best and brightest in the
armed forces, several crew members of a nuclear submarine were
discovered to have been systematically cheating on training exams.
The U.S. Navy maintained that this was a rare occurrence, but
former officers aboard the vessel indicated the practice is
- A U.S. Border Patrol agent is shot dead in Arizona. The gun is
allegedly one of thousands sold to Mexican drug traffickers as part
of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives plan to
investigate gun smuggling.
Were those involved in these situations acting with malicious
intent? Were overzealous employees attempting to gain an edge or
cut corners? Were they well-meaning staff trying to carry out
policy or right a perceived wrong? Or were simple mistakes made?
Im often amazed by what federal leaders say they consider their
most common ethical dilemmas. The initial response to my inquiry
generally yields a workplace challenge: a boss took credit for a
staffers work, a colleague has a personal relationship with a
developer who just won a lucrative contract; or a supervisor
insists that a manager assess a subordinate at a given level.
Ethical puzzles are not limited to high-profile issues in large
government agencies. They begin and exist on a much smaller scale.
Very often ethical puzzles are about reporting. If a Starbucks
barista mistakenly gave you an extra $5 in change, is it worth it
to return the money if you notice when you get back to the car?
Would that $5 quandary be the same if it were, say, $25 of office
supplies? How about $250 in football tickets given to you by a
contractor? Or $5,000 of tax-free income? Where do you draw the
It comes down to having a clear decision-making framework and a
clean ethical lens. We begin by recognizing the environment were
in, weighing the consequences of our decision, and then going with
Recognize the Environment
Public managers operate in a fish bowl. Indeed, the public sector,
and the federal government more specifically, is under scrutiny at
unheard-of levels. Here are a few sobering statistics:
- A Gallup poll taken in August 2011 suggests citizens views of
the federal government are at a record low, with the public sector
falling to last among 25 business and industry sectors for the
first time. Additionally, an alarming 63 percent of Americans view
the federal government negativelywhile only 17 percent of
Americans have a favorable view of the fedsthe lowest rating since
- A Pew Research Center survey, also released in August, reports
that only 11 percent of Americans are basically content with the
federal government. Six months before, this contented crowd
represented 22 percent of those surveyed.
As our stock falls, so does our moral currency. The most recent
Natural Culture Values Survey by the Cultural and Media Institute
shows that 74 percent of Americans feel moral values in America are
weaker than they were 20 years ago; 48 percent say moral values are
much weaker than they were 20 years ago.
Despite these depressing figures, public servants can, and do, take
pride in their work. While public managersor the public at largemay
not realize the prestige and honor that was part of the civil
services of ancient Egypt and Rome, todays public managers perform
vital services for our communities. Most times they do so under
enormous pressures. Timelines based on political schedules,
personnel and funding constraints, media attention, public demands,
legislative and judicial influence, and the pull between
constitutional values and business values all make up the unique
environment of the public manager.
Consider the Consequences of Your Decision
Decision-making models are common in business and management
literature, but rarely do we consider the consequences. Many of us
fail to analyze all of the potential outcomes of the decision, both
long and short term, when considering ethical dilemmas. That
examination takes too much time. American University Professor
Emeritus Donald G. Zauderer, a longtime member of The Public
Managers Board of Editors, suggests several underlying principles
that may guide us to a well-informed decision and help us carefully
consider the consequences.
- Immanuel Kants Means/Ends Rule: A person is not to be used as a
means to another persons end.
- Fairness (Golden Rule): Do unto others as you would have them
do unto you.
- Fairness (Platinum Rule): Treat others as they wish to be
- Kants Categorical Imperative: Only perform those acts which you
would allow to become universal standards.
- Disclosure Rule: aka The Washington Post Rule. Would you be
okay with this decision on the front page above the fold?
- Professional Ethics Rule: Is this standard behavior for your
peers? (This is the least restrictive of the rules listed and thus
the most likely to be abused.)
- Utilitarian Rule: The greatest good is whatever brings the
greatest good to the greatest number of people.
Can all these rules apply to all situations? No. The utilitarian
rule may come into conflict with other rules since, as a result of
its application, some individuals or groups may suffer. Likewise
the standard of behavior for a given profession may not mesh well
with universal standards of behavior. The task of the public
manager is to examine the situation carefully and apply the
necessary and meaningful rules that will guide them to a sound
Go With Your Gut
Bestselling business authors and statistics professors make a lot
of money arguing vehemently for analytical approaches to managing
human behavior. The idea of irrational human beings being funneled
into rational models always makes me chuckle. When all is said and
done, look at the data, assess their value, and then go with your
According to Gerd Gigerenzer, author of the 2007 book Gut Feelings:
The Intelligence of the Unconscious, a gut feeling is a judgment
that comes quickly into a persons consciousness. He notes that
while the individual may not know why he has the feeling, the
feeling is strong enough to make an individual act on it. It is not
a calculation. Decisions are reached using cues in the environment
and unconscious mental processes that take into account values,
emotions, and countless other variables. According to Gigerenzer,
these organic processes only assess the most useful information
instead of all of the potential variables in a decision, and the
result is a more efficient and authentic decision.
Gigerenzers research was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his
bestseller, Blink. Gladwell describes what scientists term the
adaptive unconscious, which allows our brains to operate as a giant
computer. Blink asserts that human beings could not have survived
without having the innate ability to make quick and accurate
judgments based on very little information.
This approach is not uncommon. Law enforcement officers are
credited with an instinct that someone is hiding something or that
something is amiss. Likewise, researchers follow hunches that lead
them to ground-breaking discoveries.
The Public Manager Challenge
Public sector leaders operate in a spotlight and make an impact
unlike leaders in any other industry. The consequences of their
decisions may affect the homeless, public safety, or national
Stakeholders they may never meet wield influence of varying
degrees. As James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 51, If men
were angels, no government would be necessary.
Public managers must make the best decisions possible and aspire to
be role models for integrity. They are the best representatives we
have of our constitutional values.
Only by continually examining our environment, weighing potential
consequences, and embracing the decision we feel is best, will we
secure the public trust and do so in the most ethical way.