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Ethical Dilemmas in Public Administration.

Reviewed by Carol W. Lewis, professor at the University of Connecticut and formerly consultant to the GFOA on the development of its Code of Ethics.

Here is a book that delivers what it promises. This collection of case studies - written by collaborating academics and practitioners in response to numerous, serious wrongdoings in Rhode Island earlier in this decade - provides provocative simulated experience in ethical decision making. According to the introduction, the purpose is to center administrative ethics squarely on the public interest in order to counter what a gubernatorial task force described as "[a]n atmosphere of greed and an environment of indulgence among the corrupt and connected that accepts, excuses and participates in unethical behavior...."

The main themes include public disclosure, professional responsibility and the limits of confidentiality (when privacy and confidentiality clash with public interest), reform of organizational culture to support ethical conduct and policy, gender issues and institutional norms, and loyalty and the public good. Judging from GFOA's professional standards, these are central to finance officers' professional responsibilities. The agency and functional context, however, is not specific to finance officers, and the intended audience includes all public administrators.

Nonetheless, financial and budgetary issues are central to several cases. For example, the first case explores the use and misuse of financial information wrongfully obtained and the more or less suitable ethical standards associated with participating in market transactions. Surely the latter increases in importance in this era of outsourcing, licensing, regulation, privatization, partnerships, leveraging, and other indirect approaches to efficiently managing public resources and providing services to the public. The budget process and resource constraint are central to two cases: Chapter 9 tells the tale from the perspective of an agency head and former legislator and Chapter 11 follows the trail of budget cuts in a line agency. These chapters hint at but unfortunately never address the ethical implications and ramifications of chronic underfunding of the statutorily mandated mission. Other cases explore undoubtedly related issues such as demoralization, inattentive regulatory oversight, lax supervision, and effective but unethical organizational norms.

Perhaps this volume's greatest strength is that all chapters are written tightly and well, obviously with the busy professional in mind. Several case studies are unusually and usefully rich in theory, and several chapters offer thoughtful analyses of the major ethical issues. The discussions are self-consciously pragmatic and grounded in administrative realities. Despite their brevity, many cases embed diverse issues in tough dilemmas. One case reminds me of two keys to surviving with integrity intact: administrators should consider themselves as one of the many stakeholders and should find themselves a senior mentor who supports ethical conduct. Here, and in other instances in the book, the necessary link between the ethical administrator and ethical organization becomes clear.

The book's greatest limitation for a national audience is that it is set almost entirely in Rhode Island, a state characterized by public unions and highly partisan politics. Another problem is that, contrary to their experience and profession, elected chief administrative officers are deemed to be public administrators; thus, important distinctions are lost and few cases account for professional values and associations. Neither of these drawbacks alters the fact that some of the cases portray riveting dilemmas with nuances interesting to middle- and senior-level managers. Together they constitute a useful addition to the several outstanding, well-known case books devoted to public service. The case method is suited nicely to the study of ethics as a practical, applied endeavor. At its best, the method offers opportunity for sophisticated, protracted self-reflection and provides broad experience at low risk to the administrator and organization and at low cost to the community.

Ethical Dilemmas in Public Administration is available for $55, plus $4 shipping and handling, from Greenwood Publishing Group, 88 Post Road West, P.O. Box 5007, Westport, CT 06881 (800/225-5800).
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Lewis, Carol W.
Publication:Government Finance Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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