Ethical Leadership and Administrative Discretion: The Fire Chief's Hiring Dilemma: Presented at the 2005 Southeastern Conference on Public Administration (SECoPA) in Little Rock, Arkansas

Article excerpt

Recent efforts to reform government are challenging many of the basic theoretical and managerial assumptions and values of governance in complex, public organizations. (1) Under the political rubric of reinventing government, these efforts portray government as a failed enterprise and advocate radical organizational changes in structure, policy and procedure, as well as the use of private sector practices and services. (2) Reforms include the privatization and contracting out of public goods and services, as well as efforts to devolve administrative decisions to more local levels of government while increasing the amount of discretion available to individual bureaucrats. (3) This period of political, institutional and administrative change and instability results in ethical dilemmas for public administrators, (4) as they attempt to reconcile traditions of constitutional governance and legal accountability with the search for flexibility, innovation, and productivity in addressing managerial and programmatic issues. (5)

As a consequence of this pronounced tendency to blur the distinction between the public and private sectors, (6) "public managers are continually confronted with both value-laden choices and the questions of whether and how those values should be made explicit." (7) This is a salient issue because in practice most public employees faced with a true ethical dilemma involving competing values and conflicting obligations have no place to go, other than to refer to agency and professional codes of ethics. (8) But codes of ethics generally project ideals, norms, and obligations, that are "often vague, abstract, and lofty, and thus, difficult to apply in specific situations where ethical guidance is needed." (9) This is because "professional ethical codes and statements ... frequently harbor self-serving sentiments that focus on a legalistic or compliance mode that results in oversight, controls, and sanctions, rather than the ethical analysis and reflection required to manage the exigencies of professional life." (10)

Nonetheless, public managers routinely administer public law and distinguish between rules, laws, and actual behavior as "[a]daptation, innovation, and leadership require such distinctions. (11) But the selective and responsible exercise of administrative discretion within the parameters of public law is complicated by organizational structures and cultures, as well as political and other complexities, ambiguities, and competing values. (12)

Therefore, a compliance mode to resolving public service ethical dilemmas is insufficient when ethical judgment and sophistication are essential for effective public service. (13) Indeed, public managers must demonstrate moral leadership within the bounds of the laws and constitutional norms of government by responsibly exercising their administrative discretion based on appropriate public service values and beliefs. (14) In other words, public administrators have an ethical obligation to respond to the values of the governed when formal, legal or institutional controls over their behavior are nonexistent or ineffective. (15) These values are embedded in the American political regime and provide constitutional principles for the ethical analysis and moral reflection required of public administrators in the responsible use of their administrative discretion. (16)

This article describes an ethical dilemma faced by a local government human resource manager (HRM) and fire chief who were confronted with the decision to succumb to political pressure from prominent citizens, volunteer fire chiefs, and city council members to hire unqualified firefighter candidates, or to discount their input and reject the candidates. The authors describe the fire chief's dilemma and discuss the importance of practicing ethical leadership to build public trust and accountability with citizens and other stakeholders in the responsible use of administrative discretion while pursuing the public interest. …


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