Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

The Morally Mute Manager: Fact or Fiction?

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

The Morally Mute Manager: Fact or Fiction?

Article excerpt

In a recent article in this journal, Dr. Charles E. Mitchell[1] delivered a sweeping condemnation of appointed and elected officeholders that neither accept nor act on their ethical and moral obligations. Dr. Mitchell asserts that there is abuse at virtually every level of government by nearly every type of person from the highest ranking official through middle-management to the street-level bureaucrat. Moreover, as he puts it, "many in the field of public administration have questioned how we have arrived at a point where there is so much unethical, immoral, and illegal activity in government."[2] Is American government riddled with unethical, immoral, and illegal activity? Is it worse than in years past? Has there been a morally or ethically degenerative pattern in government? Private sector business behavior? Family? Schooling? And, if America is going south in the proverbial handbasket, what can and should be done about it?

These are very large, important, and provocative questions. They are likely to evoke very large and provocative answers. Dr. Mitchell, for example, believes that one answer lies in instilling an "appropriate value system in our leaders" through a revamping of our educational system. Presumably, educational institutions, especially colleges and universities that prepare men and women for public service careers, should take steps to inculcate those values that are likely to foster ethical, moral, and legal behaviors. Herein, of course, lies the rub--which values? whose values?

Even if a consensus could be reached regarding which values should be instilled in our future leaders (a daunting task to be sure), how confident can we be that it will make a difference in governance? In how public organizations are managed? In how the performance of public organizations is improved? The answers to these questions are equally challenging, perhaps even more so in light of the moral muteness that has engulfed much of public administration as a field of study and practice since Woodrow Wilson proclaimed in "The Study of Administration"[3] that the administration of government is a field of business and the running of government should be removed from the "hurry and strife" of politics.

The Rise of the Morally Mute Public Manager

Wilson's plea to make the running of government more business-like, especially to take the politics out of government, also required a science of administration. Wilson's angst about the absence of science in administration is best expressed in his own words:

   "Not much impartial scientific method is to be discerned
   in our administrative practices. The poisonous atmosphere
   of city government, the crooked secrets of state
   administration, the confusion, sinecurism, and corruption
   ever and again discovered in the bureaux at Washington
   forbid us to believe that any clear conceptions are as yet
   very widely current in the United States."

A science of administration, Wilson profoundly believed, would "straighten the paths of government...strengthen and purify its its dutifulness."[4]

These pronouncements found an intellectual home with the emergence of the "Scientific Management" movement founded by Frederick W. Taylor at the turn of the 20th Century. Taylor, an engineer who believed that America suffered enormously from inefficiencies in the factory and government, advocated "one-best-way" to accomplish work and introduced tools such as time-and-motion studies to find the one best way. The application of scientific management principles in industry and government, Taylor argued, would lift America out of its wasteful and unproductive habits to the benefit of all. Taylor's "siren call" resonated well with good government reformers and the movement to create an impartial, merit based civil service. Inefficiency, after all, was closely identified with corruption and other misdeeds so prevalent in America's cities and states at the turn of the 20th Century. …

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