Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Reinventing Public Personnel Management: Ethical Implications for Managers and Public Personnel Systems

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Reinventing Public Personnel Management: Ethical Implications for Managers and Public Personnel Systems

Article excerpt

The need to ensure responsible administration in government is an imperative concern for the field of public management. The interest in administrative responsibility is crucial because public administrators are the people who place government into action. They manage and direct the operations of federal, state, and local organizations providing essential services and programs. They issue directives and regulations, which give meaning to public policy, and in the process, substantive policy choices are made. In addition, in these capacities, government administrators act on behalf of the people. Ultimately, they must be accountable to the public interest. As a consequence, public servants bear important moral and ethical obligations. Indeed, much of the history of public administration in the United States has focused on the question of how those obligations might best be met.

At the time of our "bureaucratic beginnings," George Washington, to whom fell the task of ensuring the initial integrity of a nascent civil service, insisted upon high moral standards as a basic qualification for public office.[1] In addition to competence and loyalty to the new constitution, Washington stressed "fitness of character" as an important prerequisite for appointment to the government work force. This standard for appointment promoted the principled stature of Washington's administration as well as the legitimacy of the new regime. But as time passed, the importance of ethical obligations of public servants was magnified even beyond what it was in the crucial early years, and the problem of discerning proper ethical conduct became more complex.

The late nineteenth century civil service reform movement addressed the issue of promoting an ethical public service by pushing for the implementation of merit systems for public employment. This reform was considered necessary by its supporters because the politics of patronage appointments to the public work force had by that time bread considerable corruption and abuse of power. Merit systems represented an effort to overturn that corruption by standing on a foundation of selection on the basis of open and competitive examinations; relative security of tenure achieved through employee protection from arbitrary, capricious, or politically motivated removal; and an expectation of partisan neutrality on the part of the public employee.

It was argued that such procedures, whose enforcement was entrusted to a central authority (the U. S. Civil Service Commission at the federal level), would cleanse the civil service of the moral depravity that had come to be associated with spoils politics. But, in addressing this significant issue, merit system reforms worked to advance what has eventually emerged as one of the most perplexing problems of the modern administrative state: the presence of significant administrative discretion in the hands of officials who are shielded in important ways from direct political control. How is responsible administration to be ensured in such a system?

Certainly, competence and faithfulness to the law are essential ingredients for any prescription for public administrative responsibility, but how are we to judge ethical behavior when the law is unclear and the task of selecting a course of action falls within the discretion of the public bureaucrat? Early public administrationists sought refuge from this dilemma largely in the argument that administrators would act on the basis of scientifically derived principles of management and that partisan politics would in no way determine administrative outcomes. The now classic essay by Woodrow Wilson from 1887 is probably the best known articulation of this point of view.[2] In that work, Wilson found no discomfort in the exercise of great administrative discretion provided that it was informed by expert opinion. "There is no danger in power, if only it be not irresponsible," Wilson argued. …

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