The Ethical Bureaucrat’s Dilemma

Ian Bron

Several weeks ago I published a piece on the Hill Times website commenting on the failure of the federal government’s ethics program. It could be interpreted as suggesting that the phrase “public service ethics” is an oxymoron.

It isn’t, of course. There are many in government today who are highly ethical, who come to work every day with the best of intentions. Most do meaningful work for the benefit of Canadians, stoically enduring the scorn of a public all too ready to accept the notion that public servants are lazy and overpaid. Reports by right-leaning think tanks aside, public servants generally clock long hours and get paid at a level appropriate to their education (which is generally higher than average). Job security is also a thing of the past.

Even the most ethical people must find a way to get by in the institutions in which they work, however. Institutions are powerful, and if its values are different than the ones an employee holds, the employee must frequently accommodate his or her values to that of the institution. What many people develop is two sets of ethics – one for work and one for their personal lives. As long as work reflects the ethics of broader society, there is nothing wrong with this. Cultural or religious values may be at odds with those of broader society but should not interfere with working with others.

The dark side of this, though, is the acceptance, at work, of values no Canadian would approve of. For example, while a person wouldn’t think of telling a lie or distortion to their spouse, it might be quite conceivable in a work setting. If the lie is too bald-faced, rationalizations happen – common examples include phrases like “if you look at it from another perspective”, “but he/she is the best fit for the job”, or “but it’s for the good in the long run”. But often even this step is abandoned.

For those who can do ethical splitting – most of us, if we’re being honest – it can become a slippery slope. Once you’ve surrendered your right to ethically object once, it becomes easier to rationalize the next time. Over time, the erosion of ethical beliefs and the acceptance of wrongdoing can become a norm. If it happens too often and by too many people, it becomes the culture of the organization. The behavior becomes normalized. In this perverse situation, it is those who act ethically who begin to be viewed as out of place.

There are signs that this is precisely what has been happening in the public service for some time. The most current and obvious example is that of the Senate staffer Chris Montgomery, who rightfully objected to interference by the PMO in the Senate’s business and was promptly labeled a problem. He left soon after. This has happened before: Allan Cutler, who objected to abuses in the Sponsorship Program, was similarly labeled and sidelined. The executives who made these judgments were clearly being sincere: they honestly believed that it was the duty of those under then to unquestioningly follow orders. There are many other cases. In the rigid hierarchy that characterizes government, there may also be a psychological element: ethical resistance is not viewed objectively, but as an attack on the hierarchy itself – a kind of personal insult. Even simply putting concerns in writing can be viewed as a threat and punished, presumably because it could eventually surface via an access to information request.

Those who commit abuses of authority and wrongdoing in the workplace exploit and promote this distortion of the loyalty principle. Those who respect this distortion – who protect their peers and superiors – are promoted. Those who don’t – to use another example, dissenting scientists such as Shiv Chopra, Margaret Hayden and Gerard Lambert, who refused to approve bovine growth hormone in Canada – are marginalized or fired.

There are other examples as well, in which, for example, public relations staff are required to defend and promote politically determined policies. This is contrary to a the role of a neutral public service, which should report on activities and performance in neutral terms and not act as an arm of the governing political party. Following the Lac Mégantic disaster, Transport Canada scrambled to assert that it had no responsibility, could not have foreseen it, and that Canada has one of the safest rail systems in the world. This has been repeated almost verbatim after every fiery derailment since, despite compelling evidence that rail operators have been underreporting derailments and the firing of a Transport Canada inspector who was faking safety reports. Taking this into consideration, the claims begin to look more and more like propaganda and not the neutral reporting it should be. This, in turn, undermines public confidence in government.

This is a dilemma that public servants increasingly face: whether to say and do things that they know to be unethical and survive another day unscathed, or to take a stand and face reprisals for doing so. In the short run, the former seems the smartest course. But there is a price. In the long run, it contributes to the normalization of unethical behavior and to the process colloquially termed “the bad driving out the good”, in which ethical employees gradually leave and are replaced by more compliant and less competent staff. That makes life even more unpleasant for the average employee – and, more importantly, increases the chances of catastrophic failures such as at Lac Mégantic.

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on January 27, 2014.

2 thoughts on “The Ethical Bureaucrat’s Dilemma”

  1. Ian,
    I agree with you 98%, but have a reservation as to your comment: “The executives who made these judgments were clearly being sincere: they honestly believed that it was the duty of those under then to unquestioningly follow orders.” Perhaps you know the individuals and question and have made this comment out of that personal knowledge. I do not agree with it as a general comment.

    It has been noted several times that the federal government bureaucracy has many layers, and that not all of these layers are necessary. What these naysayers may not recognize is that the multiplication of layers is add complexity to the system, limit downward information flow, and add gate-keepers. In this way, top-down control is enhanced, with the leader isolated from the technical merit of the question and the consequences of his decision, thus able to decide on the basis on personal ideology, bias or interest. Meanwhile, the line worker has so much buffer between herself and the leader that she has no appreciation for the real key drivers of departmental policy and programs (as opposed to those formal statements of policy and purpose found on the departmental website)..

    Your comment is timely and worthy of attention.

  2. Excellent points, Walter. What I meant was that the executives have come to believe the rationalizations they create to justify unethical action. But perhaps even that’s too generous.

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