Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A question of ethics

Often in the MPA program, we are lectured on the subject of “ethics”. There is even a semester-long class on the subject. Every time, I hope for a meaningful discussion on corrupt politicians, unethical laws, or the public’s recent interest in accountability at the public level, but instead the lecture ends up being focused on basics (every office should have a written code of ethics), ethical questions that I consider petty (the regulation of office romances), or insipid (a discussion of how DMV employees should treat the public). I thought the ethics class might have a little more insight, but I saw the syllabus once, and was very disappointed as the only change in the basic outline was replacing the words “DMV employees” with “LAPD”. As it turns out, I will have to take this class in the fall, so I will be able to better report on it later this year.

I wonder how my professors can ignore what could be meatier discussion. I have to deal with much stronger questions of ethics every day in my organization. A discussion of Enron-style creative accounting never comes up in school, since the focus in my major is public sector and non-profits. I can assure everyone that every single publicly-traded company engages in creative accounting, though maybe not to the point of being illegal, and certainly not in the style of Enron. But just because it’s not illegal, does that make it ethical? But let’s not get into that as it is not relevant to my major.

Let me play the MPA game and find something relevant to my private sector org that also affects the public sector. I work for an environmental engineer and for some of their un-named clients. I find there is inherent conflict in biologists, ecologists, and environmental engineers (hereafter referred to collectively as eng/scientists) performing haz mat cleanups on Air Force bases.

First, we always find ourselves explaining the importance of profit or simply project management to the eng/scientist. She argues that the notion of managing to a bottom line is offensive and unethical in that it violates her personal code of loving the earth at any cost. My answer to her is that even so, we can not stay in business and give her altruistic work if we can not make money to pay her. I have not exactly answered the question of ethics, but have at least provided some kind of answer.

Second, the money I just spoke of ultimately comes from the government, be it Federal or local, some public agency is involved. Maybe it would surprise you at how frequently I have to calm the peace-loving eng/scientist who is having qualms about taking money from the warmongers. I have seen, more than once, more than twice, the eng/scientist who claims that it is, in fact, her personal code of ethics that allows her to complete her work, but she refuses to wear a company Tshirt.

Third, as a for-profit company, we direct Ms. eng/scientist to perform cleanups to the limit provided by law. In reality we all know that legal limits and healthy limits are two different things that are frequently contradictory. In my work I am exposed to documents that prove that legal limits are a result of bureaucracy and have nothing to do with health at all. How do public administrators explain laws and regulations of clearly questionable ethics? This is where the biggest questions of ethics are raised every day, not only by the eng/scientists, but by our legal staff, our accountants, our clients. I heard an un-named client honestly admit to the conflict between doing what’s legal and doing what’s right.

This conflict exists in the public sector as well. One of my cohorts in the program works for the Superior Court. Tonight she told a heartbreaking story about turning away victims of domestic violence because they stood in the wrong line at the courthouse. Although this action is admittedly against the Court’s written values, she must do this or risk being disciplined by her supervisor as it is against union policy for her to assist anyone who doesn’t fit very specific criteria.

After hearing a story like that, I don’t really think it’s necessary to discuss the ethics of hanging a bathing suit calendar in one’s cubicle.

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