making local government more ethical

Terry Cooper's *The Responsible Administrator* - Thinking Ethically

There is so much valuable material in Terry L. Cooper's book The Responsible Administrator: An Approach to Ethics for the Administrative Role (1998) that it's difficult to sum up in a review. So instead I will look at some of its most important points in a few separate blog entries.

Responsibility is the key to municipal ethics as well as administration. It is central to democratic accountability, to recognizing and dealing with sometimes conflicting obligations, to being a public servant.

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Cooper points out early in his book that 'responsibility' is a modern term. The Oxford English Dictionary confirms this: the first use it gives is from Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist (1787). Before the Enlightenment, obligations had to do with religion and with one's position in society. When religion became less all-encompassing and society's hierarchy was no longer considered natural, people had to define new roles and obligations. The American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth century had a great deal to do with determining this new sense of public responsibility.

According to Cooper, ethics is especially important for public officials because they have multiple roles (and obligations that go with them) and they have discretion. Ethics is what guides them in 'the responsible use of this discretion.' I like Cooper's description of the public administrator as 'a fiduciary professional citizen.' It is important to recognize that first and foremost, administrators are citizens. But they are citizens with special responsibilities that come from two sources: they are professionals, and they have fiduciary obligations as public servants who take and spend the public's money.

Cooper argues that public officials must 'develop skill in thinking about ethical problems, toward the end of creating a working professional ethic of their own. Without cultivating this ability to theorize and generalize from experience, no public administrator can transcend the boundaries of particular events to comprehend and assess them. ... [it is] impossible to see where we are going. Choice is constrained and freedom is ultimately stunted by the unforeseen consequences of our actions.'

This last point is especially unusual and important. Thinking ethically does not only make public administrators better people and make theirr decisions, as well as the processes they choose in making them, more fair and compassionate. Thinking ethically actually gives administrators more freedom and allows them to anticipate more, to see what is coming in more than a strategic sense, and thereby to be better administrators, as well.

When should public officials think ethically? All the time. Every official develops a working ethic, what we usually refer to as 'character,' by making decision after decision about ethical issues, 'even if the decision is to ignore the problem. A decision to take no action is, in fact, a decision about personal responsibility.'

Everyone thinks and acts ethically. But public officials in a democracy have an extra obligation most people don't have: accountability. They not only have to act, but they have to explain their actions. Of course, they can explain them away, tell half-truths, distort, and lie. But if officials want to act ethically, they have to recognize the need to be accountable for their conduct to the public and also to their superiors, the press, and the courts. In order to explain their conduct, they must 'consciously address and systematically process the ethical dimensions of decision making ... explain and justify [their] conduct, or be prepared to do so when requested.'

In other words, public officials cannot just go with their gut feelings, like most people do. They have an obligation not only to act ethically, but to think ethically, to understand what they are doing so that they can honestly explain it to others.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org