Ethical Concerns in Public Administration
‘Ethics’ is a difficult term to define. The meaning, nature and scope of ethics have expanded in the course of time. ‘Ethics’ is integral to public administration. In public administration, ethics focuses on how the public administrator should question and reflect in order to be able to act responsibly. We cannot simply bifurcate the two by saying that ethics deals with morals and values, while public administration is about actions and decisions. Administering accountability and ethics is a difficult task. The levels of ethics in governance are dependent on the social, economic, political, cultural, legal-judicial and historical contexts of the country. These specific factors influence ethics in public administrative systems. This Unit will discuss the meaning, evolution, foci and concerns of ethics. It will bring out the different dimensions of ethics and their relevance for public administration. The significance of an ethical code for administrators will be analysed and the nature of work ethics will be discussed. This Unit will also examine the obstacles to ethical accountability.
ETHICS: MEANING AND RELEVANCE
‘Ethics’ is a system of accepted beliefs, mores and values, which influence human behaviour. More specifically, it is a system based on morals. Thus, ethics is the study of what is morally right, and what is not. The Latin origin of the word ‘ethics’ is ethicus that means character. Since the early 17th century, ‘ethics’ has been accepted as the “Science of morals; the rules of conduct, the science of human duty.” Hence, in common parlance, ethics is treated as moral principles that govern a person’s or a group’s behaviour. It includes both the science of the good and the nature of the right.
The ethical concerns of governance have been underscored widely in Indian scriptures and other treatises such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagvad Gita, Buddha Charita, Arthashastra, Panchatantra, Manusmriti, Kural, Shukra Niti, Kadambari, Raja Tarangani, and Hitopadesh. At the same time, one cannot ignore the maxims on ethical governance provided by the Chinese philosophers such as Lao Tse, Confucius and Mencius.
In the Western philosophy, there are three eminent schools of ethics. The first, inspired by Aristotle, holds that virtues (such as justice, charity and generosity) are dispositions to act in ways that benefit the possessor of these virtues and the society of which he is a part. The second, subscribed to mainly by Immanual Kant, makes the concept of duty central to morality: human beings are bound, from a knowledge of their duty as rational beings, to obey the categorical imperative to respect other rational beings with whom they interact. The third is the Utilitarian viewpoint that asserts that the guiding principle of conduct should be the greatest happiness (or benefit) of the greatest number (Hobson, 2002). The Western thought is full of ethical guidelines to rulers, whether in a monarchy or a democracy. These concerns are found in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Penn, John Stuart Mill, Edmund Burke, and others.
Rawl’s theory of justice revolves around the adaptation of two fundamental principles of justice, which would, in turn, guarantee a just and morally acceptable society. The first principle guarantees the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty compatible with liberty of others. The second principle states that social and economic positions are to be: (a) To everyone’s advantage, and (b) Open to all. A key issue for Rawls is to show how such principles would be universally adopted, and over here his work borders on general ethical issues. He introduces a theoretical ‘veil of ignorance’ in which all ‘players’ in the social game would be placed in a situation, which is called the ‘original position’. Having only a general knowledge about the facts of ‘life and society’ each player is to make a ‘rationally’ prudential choice concerning the kind of social institution they would enter into contract with. By denying the players any specific information about themselves it forces them to adopt a generalised point of view that bears a strong resemblance to the moral point of view. This view point revolves around moral conclusions can be reached without abandoning the prudential standpoint and posting a moral outlook merely by pursuing one’s own prudential reasoning under certain procedural bargaining.
The gist of wisdom on administrative ethics is that the public administrators are the “guardians” of the Administrative State. Hence, they are expected to honour public trust and not violate it. Two crucial questions raised in this context are “why should guardians be guarded? And “Who guards the guardian?” (Rosenbloom and Kravchuk, 2005). The administrators need to be guarded against their tendency to misconceive public interest, promote self-interest, indulge in corruption and cause subversion of national interest. And they need to be guarded by the external institutions such as the judiciary, legislature, political executive, media and civil society organisations. These various modes of control become instruments of accountability.
- EVOLUTION OF ETHICAL CONCERNS IN ADMINISTRATION
It is essential to recognise that the discipline of Public Administration has been broadly influenced in the initial stages of its growth, by Political Science and the science of Management. While the philosophical premises of Public Administration were influenced primarily by Political Science, its technological facet was designed by Management Sciences. The early Political Science was taught as Moral Philosophy and Political Economy, while its current curriculum is the product of secular, practical, empirical and scientific tendencies of the past century. The American students of Political Science, in the early years of the last century, were dismayed at the inadequacies of the ethical approach in the Gilded Age. As a result of their interaction with the German universities and the influence on their thinking by scholars such as J.N Burgess, E.J. James, A.B Hart, A.L Lovell, and F.J Goodnow, they sought to recreate Political Science as a true science. They became increasingly interested in observing and analysing ‘actual governments’. Natural and Social Sciences substantially influenced their ideas and approaches.
Later, Logical Positivism of the Austrian School influenced scholars such as Herbert Simon and thus there emerged a booming faith in developing a Science of Politics and a Science of Administration that would be able to `predict and control’ political and administrative life. As Dwight Waldo comments, the old belief that good government was the government of moral men was thus replaced by a morality that was irrelevant and that proper institutions and expert personnel were the determining factors in shaping good government. `The new amorality became almost a request for professional respect’.
The eminence of Behaviouralism until the mid-1960s further marginalised the ethical issues in the study of Political Science and Public Administration. It was only after the advent of Post-behaviouralism in Political Science and of the accent on New Public Administration in Public Administration that the scientific methods of Behaviouralim and humanistic (read `ethical’) values struck a homogenous chord with administration and the dispute between facts and values was resolved substantially.
The current discipline of public administration accords primacy to the `values’ of equity, justice, humanism, human rights, gender equality and compassion. The movement of Good Governance, initiated by the World Bank in 1992, lays stress, inter alia, on the ethical and moral conduct of administrators. While the New Public Management movement is more concerned with administrative effectiveness, the New Public Administration focuses on administrative ethics in its broader manifestation. Both the movements are complementary to each other. This complementarity of foci
is as truer today as it was a hundred years ago when the industrial world was experiencing the rise of Scientific Management amidst a strong acceptance of the notion of administrative responsibility. John Kennedy, during his Presidency (1961-1963) had averred: “No responsibility of government is more fundamental than the responsibility of maintaining the higher standards of ethical behaviour.
The ideal-type construction of bureaucracy, propounded by Max Weber also highlighted an ethical imperative of bureaucratic behaviour. Weber (1947) observed: In the rational type, it is a matter of principle that the members of the administrative staff should be completely separated from ownership of the means of production and administration. Officials, employees and workers attached to the administrative staff do not themselves own the non-human means of production and administration…. These exists, furthermore, in principle complete separation of property belonging to the organisation, which is controlled within the sphere of office, and the personal property of the official, which is available for his own private uses”.
Weber’s analysis underscores the need to prevent the misuse of an official position for personal gains. Although his ideal-type construct on bureaucracy is not empirical, yet it has an empirical flavour, for it appears to have taken into account the existential reality of bureaucratic behaviour. From a normative angle – knowing that Weber was not normative in his ideal type constructs – also, the message is clear: Don’t misuse official property for personal benefit.
Most critics of real-world bureaucracies, including Harold Laski, Carl Friedrich, Victor Thompson and Warren Bennis, have criticised bureaucrats for violating the prescribed norms of moral conduct. Even Fred Riggs, while discussing the traits of a prismatic society like `formalism’ and ‘nepotism’ points out the yawning gap between the `ideal’ and the `real’ in administrative behaviour. The deviations from the norms and mores have been too glaring to be ignored. Immoral behaviour thus has become an integral component of `bureaupathology’
- CONTEXT OF ETHICS AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE FOR PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION
Ethics, whether in an entire society, or in a social sub-system, evolves over a long period of time and is influenced, during its nurturance and growth, by a variety of environmental factors. Administrative ethics is no different. It is the product of several contextual structures and it never ceases to grow and change. Let us now look at some of these contextual factors that influence ethics in the public administrative systems:
The Historical Context
The history of a country marks a great influence on the ethical character of the governance system. The Spoils System in the USA during the initial phase of the American nation vitiated the ethical milieu of the American Public Administration. “To victor belong the spoils” asserted American President Jackson. Things would have continued the same way had not a disgruntled job seeker assassinated President Garfield in 1881. Garfield’s assassination spurred the process of civil service reforms in the USA, and the setting up of the US. Civil Service Commission in 1883 was the first major step in this direction.
India has witnessed a long history of unethical practices in the governance system. Kautilya’s Arthashastra mentions a variety of corrupt practices in which the administrators of those times indulged themselves. The Mughal Empire and the Indian princely rule were also afflicted with the corrupt practices of the courtiers and
administrative functionaries, with ‘bakashish’ being one of the accepted means of selling and buying favours. The East India Company too had its share of employees who were criticised even by the British parliamentarians for being corrupt.
The forces of probity and immorality co-exist in all phases of human history. Which forces are stronger depends upon the support these get from the prime actors of politico-administrative system. What is disturbing is that a long legacy of unethical practices in governance is likely to enhance the tolerance level for administrative immorality. In most developing nations having a colonial history, the chasm between the people and the government continues to be wide. In the colonial era, the legitimacy of the governance was not accepted willingly by a majority of population and therefore, true loyalty to the rulers was a rare phenomenon. Although the distance between the governing elite and the citizens has been reduced substantially in the transformed democratic regimes, yet the affinity and trust between the two has not been total even in the new dispensation. Unfortunately, even the ruling elite does not seem to have imbibed the spirit of emotional unity with the citizens. The legacy of competitive collaboration between the people and the administrators continues to exist. The nature of this relationship has an adverse impact on ‘administrative ethics’.
The Socio-cultural Context
Values that permeate the social order in a society determine the nature of governance system. The Indian society today seems to prefer wealth to any other value. And in the process of generating wealth, the means-ends debate has been sidelined. Unfortunately, ends have gained supremacy and the means do not command an equal respect. A quest for wealth in itself is not bad. In fact, it is a mark of civilisational progress. What is important is the means employed while being engaged in this quest.
We seem to be living in an economic or commercial society, where uni-dimensional growth of individuals seem to be accepted and even valued, where ends have been subdued by means, and ideals have been submerged under the weight of more practical concerns of economic progress. Can we change this social order? Mahatma Gandhi very much wanted to transform the priority-order of the Indian society, but there were hardly any takers or backers of his radical thinking that was steeped in a strong moral order. To put it bluntly, ever since Gandhi passed away, there has been not a single strong voice in independent India challenging the supremacy of ‘teleology and unidimensionalism’. Neither have our family values questioned this unilinear growth of society nor has our educational system made serious efforts to inject morality into the impressionable minds of our youth. We have starkly failed on these fronts. The need is to evolve fresh perspectives on what kind of the Indians we wish to evolve and how? Till then, efforts will have to be focused on the non-social fronts.
The issues of morality may or may not be rooted in the religious ethos of a society. Indian religious scriptures do not favour pursuit of wealth through foul means. Interestingly, Thiru Valluvar’s Kural, written two thousand years ago in Tamil Nadu, emphasises that earning wealth brings fame, respect and an opportunity to help and serve others, but it should be earned through right means only. Can this dictum form the basis of our socio-moral orientation?
The level of integrity among Protestants and Parsees is believed by some to be relatively higher when compared to other religions and one can find the roots of such integrity in the well-ingrained mores of these religions. Nevertheless, it is only one point of view, as there are several other religious and secular groups, which are known for their high moral conduct. The cultural system of a country, including its religious orientation, appears to have played a significant role in influencing the work ethics of its people. For instance, the stress on hard work, so characteristic of the Protestant ethics, has helped several Christian societies to enhance their per capita
productivity. While Judaism has valued performance of physical labour by its followers, the Hindu and Islamic societies, on the other hand, have generally considered physical labour to be of lower rank than the mental work.
Work ethics may or may not be linked with religious moorings. These are subjective issues but make for an interesting study. The family system and the educational system are influential instruments of socialisation and training of the mind in its impressionable years. If the values inculcated through the family and the school have underscored honesty and ethics, the impact on the mind-set of citizens is likely to be highly positive and powerful.
The legal system of a country determines considerably the efficacy of the ethical concerns in governance system. A neatly formulated law, with a clear stress on the norms of fair conduct and honesty, is likely to distinguish chaff from grain in the ethical universe. Conversely, nebulous laws, with confusing definition of corruption and its explanations, will only promote corruption for it would not be able to instill the fear of God or fear of law among those violating the laws of the land and mores of the society. Besides, an efficient and effective judiciary with fast-track justice system will prove a roadblock to immorality in public affairs. Conversely, a slow-moving judiciary, with a concern for letter rather than the spirit of the law, will dither and delay and even help the perpetrators of crimes by giving them leeway through prolonged trials and benefits of doubt.
Likewise, the anti-corruption machinery of the government, with its tangled web of complex procedures, unintendedly grants relief to the accused who are indirectly assisted by dilatory and knotty procedures. In India, there is hardly any effective anti-corruption institution. As we have read in Unit 7 earlier on in this Course, the Lok Pal is yet to be established, Lok Ayuktas are feeble and toothless agencies, while the state vigilance bodies are low-key actors. The consequences are too obvious to warrant any explanation.
The Political Context
The political leadership, whether in power or outside the power-domain, is perhaps the single most potent influence on the mores and values of citizens. The rulers do rule the minds, but in a democracy particularly, all political parties, pressure groups and the media also influence the orientation and attitudes on moral questions. If politicians act as authentic examples of integrity, as happens in the Scandinavian countries, or as examples of gross self-interest, as found in most South Asian countries, the administrative system cannot remain immune to the levels of political morality.
The election system in India is considered to be the biggest propeller to political corruption. Spending millions on the elections `compels’ a candidate to reimburse his expenses through fair or foul means – more foul than fair. While fair has limits, foul has none. It is generally argued that the administrative class – comprising civil servants at higher, middle as well as lower levels – emerges from the society itself. Naturally, therefore, the mores, values and behavioural patterns prevalent in the society are likely to be reflected in the conduct of administrators. To expect that the administrators will be insulated from the orientations and norms evidenced the in society would be grossly unrealistic.
The argument, propounded here, has a convincing logic, yet there can be a counter-point that the rulers are expected to possess stronger moral fibre than the subjects. Since there are hardly any instrumentalities to protect and nurture administrative morality vis-à-vis the general social morality, such an expectation remains at the most an elusive ideal. Hence, there is an obvious need to go deeper into the problem.
The behaviour of politicians has a demonstration effect on civil servants. Besides, the capacity of the less honest political masters to control civil servants is immense. It is ironical that the moral environment in a country like India is designed more by its politicians than by any other social group. The primacy of the political over the rest of systems is too obvious to be ignored. If the media is objective and fearless, its role in preventing corruption can be effective. It can even act as a catalyst to the promotion of ethical behaviour among administrators. Hence, those who own and manage the media should understand their wider social and moral responsibilities. The trend in this direction is visible now with many television channels regularly airing their ‘expose’ on malpractices in the system. This role of the media is important if performed with intent of social responsibility rather than sensationalism.
The Economic Context
The level of economic development of a country is likely to have a positive correlation with the level of ethics in the governance system. Even when a causal relation between the two is not envisaged, a correlation cannot be ruled out. A lower level of economic development, when accompanied with inequalities in the economic order, is likely to create a chasm among social classes and groups. The less privileged or more deprived sections of society may get tempted to forsake principles of honest conduct while fulfilling their basic needs of existence and security. Not that the rich will necessarily be more honest (though they can afford to be so), yet what is apprehended is that the poor, while making a living, may find it a compelling necessity to compromise with the principles of integrity.
It is interesting to note that with the advent of liberalising economic regime in developing nations, there is a growing concern about following the norms of integrity in industry, trade, management and the governance system on account of the international pressures for higher level of integrity in the WTO regime. This is what Fred Riggs would call `exogenous’ inducements to administrative change.
21.5 ISSUE OF ETHICS: FOCI AND CONCERNS
An important question arises in connection with the moral obligation of an administrative system. Is the administrative system confined to acting morally in its conduct or does it also share the responsibility of protecting and promoting an ethical order in the larger society? While most of the focus on administrative morality is on the aspect of probity within the administrative system, there is a need to consider the issue of the responsibility of the governance system (of which the administrative system is an integral part) to create and sustain an ethical ambience in the socio-economic system that would nurture and protect the basic moral values. Moral political philosophy assumes that the rulers will not only be moral themselves, but would also be the guardians of morality in a society. Truly, being moral is a prerequisite to being a guardian of wider morality. Both the obligations are intertwined.
It is a truism that the crux of administrative morality is ethical decision-making. The questions of facts and values cannot be separated from ethical decision-making. Thus, the science of administration gets integrated with the ethics of administration. And in this integrated regime, only that empirical concern is valued, which respects the normative concerns in the delivery of administrative services.
Which are the essential concerns in regard to administrative ethics? There can be a long list of values that are considered desirable in an administrative action. However, in being selective, one has to focus on the most crucial values. Let us now concentrate on the values of justice, fairness and objectivity. Woodrow Wilson, “The Study of Administration” (1887), in his inaugural address averred that justice was more important than sympathy. Thus, he placed justice at the top of value-hierarchy in a governance system. Paradoxically, there has been a lot of discussion on the formal-legal aspects of administrative law since then, but very little analysis has been made of the philosophical dimension of administrative justice.
The other two issues of ethical decision-making, viz. fairness and objectivity are, in fact, integral components of administrative justice. When administrators are true to their profession, they are expected to be impartial and fair and not get influenced by nepotism, favoritism and greed while making decisions of governance. Objectivity should not be misconstrued as a mechanical and rigid adherence to laws and rules. From the decision-making angle, it has undoubtedly wider ramifications encompassing a set of positive orientations.
Currently, the notion of ethics has expanded itself to involve all major realms of human existence. Let us attempt to outline certain salient aspects of ethics in public administration. Broadly, they could be summarised as following maxims:
- Maxim of Legality and Rationality: An administrator will follow the law and rules that are framed to govern and guide various categories of policies and decisions.
- Maxim of Responsibility and Accountability: An administrator would not hesitate to accept responsibility for his decision and actions. He would hold himself morally responsible for his actions and for the use of his discretion while making decisions. Moreover, he would be willing to be held accountable to higher authorities of governance and even to the people who are the ultimate beneficiaries of his decisions and actions.
- Maxim of Work Commitment: An administrator would be committed to his duties and perform his work with involvement, intelligence and dexterity. As Swami Vivekananda observed: “Every duty is holy and devotion to duty is the highest form of worship.” This would also entail a respect for time, punctuality and fulfillment of promises made. Work is considered not as a burden but as an opportunity to serve and constructively contribute to society.
- Maxim of Excellence: An administrator would ensure the highest standards of quality in administrative decisions and action and would not compromise with standards because of convenience or complacency. In a competitive international environment, an administrative system should faithfully adhere to the requisites of Total Quality Management.
- Maxim of Fusion: An administrator would rationally bring about a fusion of individual, organisational and social goals to help evolve unison of ideals and imbibe in his behaviour a commitment to such a fusion. In situation of conflicting goals, a concern for ethics should govern the choices made.
- Maxim of Responsiveness and Resilience: An administrator would respond effectively to the demands and challenges from the external as well as internal environment. He would adapt to environmental transformation and yet sustain the ethical norms of conduct. In situations of deviation from the prescribed ethical norms, the administrative system would show resilience and bounce back into the accepted ethical mould at the earliest opportunity
- Maxim of Utilitarianism: While making and implementing policies and decisions, an administrator will ensure that these lead to the greatest good (happiness, benefits) of the greatest number.
- Maxim of Compassion: An administrator, without violating the prescribed laws and rules, would demonstrate compassion for the poor, the disabled and the weak while using his discretion in making decisions. At least, he would not grant any benefits to the stronger section of society only because they are strong and would not deny the due consideration to the weak, despite their weakness.
- Maxim of Transparency: An administrator will make decisions and implement them in a transparent manner so that those affected by the decisions and those who wish to evaluate their rationale, will be able to understand the reasons behind such decisions and the sources of information on which these decisions were made.
There could be many more tenets added to the above catalogue of maxims of morality in administration. However, the overall objective is to ensure ‘Good Governance’ with a prime concern for ethical principles, practices, orientations and behaviour. There are no dogmas involved in defining administrative ethics. The chief concern while doing so is the positive consequence of administrative action and not just ostensibly rational modes of administrative processes. In the following Section, a few of the salient concerns and foci of ethics are being dealt with briefly.