Academic journal article Global Virtue Ethics Review

Symposium on Ethics and Public Budgeting and Finance: Summary and Conclusions

Academic journal article Global Virtue Ethics Review

Symposium on Ethics and Public Budgeting and Finance: Summary and Conclusions

Article excerpt


This symposium on ethics and public budgeting and financial management has two purposes. It directly presents a few cases from the budgeting practitioners and academic researchers, cases seeming to have interesting ethical dimensions. Ranging from the budgets of individual police departments in Louisiana to Social Security and the conversion of centrally planned economies to capitalism, these cases represent the editors' efforts to entice attention from ethicists, particularly those outside the budgeting and financial management communities. Consequently, the union of ethics and public budgeting and financial management will occur outside the confines of this symposium. Perhaps the responses will enliven a second symposium.


An ethical challenge emerges when a change to the status quo, i.e., a response outside the normal operating routines, is required. Such occurrences create a need for ethical thought and action. Throughout the cases, the public administrators have a position-based duty to be an ethical agent in fostering the public good through government activities. Concurrently, however, they have a duty to themselves as individuals since their performance is constantly being evaluated. The natural human desire to present performance in the best light can combine with increasing pressure for accountability to create an unintended incentive to misrepresent the response to an ethical dilemma as being the "right" response. A technical definition of misrepresentation is to represent falsely, or to give an untrue idea of. Misrepresentation occurs when information on performance levels, or decisions made, or actions taken is presented to suggest that the activities of a public official are legal and ethical without fully disclosing additional information or considerations about competing values that, when revealed, cast doubt on the adequacy and/or appropriateness of the response and outcomes. Misrepresentation can have profound costs for an organization: loss of credibility, corrosion of productivity, program compromise, and future appropriations, for example. Despite such costs, misrepresentation occurs depressingly often, and modern fiscal control systems like performance-based budgeting may goad desperate managers into trying to make their organizations appear more competitive, more effective, or more efficient than reality supports.

Articles in the first installment of this symposium ranged from the budgetary effects of the disposal of forfeited assets of individual police departments in Louisiana to stealth budgeting tactics used to redirect federal budget surpluses to finance Social Security and finally to a framework for analyzing competing ethics. When considering the ethical implications of self-funding police departments, Prejean illustrated how the seemingly ethical act of enforcing the laws of society can simultaneously foster a situation where self-interested actors can abuse their legal responsibilities to the extent their actions become unethical. To cite the author, "Is the wolf guarding the hen house?" Are we encouraging law enforcement personnel to be very, perhaps overly, vigilant in their enforcement of a certain portion of the law since they will receive a portion of any assets they seize? The answer to this is unknown, but certainly the conflict of interest has been documented. The potential for misrepresentation, in the name of increasing the assets available to fight the wars on drugs, is large.

According to Cuny, federal budget concepts are a neutral set of rules imposed on the federal budgeting system to inhibit Congressional and Executive attempts at smoke and mirror budgeting for the purpose of gaining strategic advantage. The budget concepts work through the inculcation of standard analytical treatments and reporting requirements. As evidence, the "stealth budgeting" techniques used by the Clinton administration to report and redirect federal budget surpluses are described. …

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