Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Values and Ethics in the Public Service of Canada: Tautology or Missed Opportunity?

“The most difficult challenges facing leaders present themselves as dilemmas, paradoxes or tensions. These tensions are usually people centred and involve contestation of values.”

- Patrick Duignan, “Leading in an age of paradox and dilemma

This constitutes the third posting I make on the topic of values and ethics in the federal public service.

In my first posting entitled simply “On Values and Ethics” published back in June, I made the following points:
  • What we call “values and ethics” in the federal public service currently boils down to wrongdoing. Drawing on my own experience, I argued that values and ethics investigations are more concerned with what may have been done wrong than what may have been done right. I stated that values and ethics will remain synonymous with wrongdoing unless champions of values and ethics are willing to equally consider “right-doing” and balance the equation.
  • Ethical dilemmas are matters of right vs. right, not right vs. wrong. Failing to consider right vs. right matters in values and ethics investigations, or worse, intentionally reducing them to matters of right vs. wrong, are a gross oversimplification of what should be recognized as complex conflicts between competing values.
  • I urged for a clear interpretation of the following statement taken from the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service: “In the Public Service, how ends are achieved should be as important as the achievements themselves.” I further suggested that if the means and the end are equally important, then the decision should not be guided by the means or the end themselves, but rather by their underlying values. This implies looking at the values the end supports and weighing them against the values the means call into question and let the values that have the highest priority guide the final decisions. I concluded by stating that most values and ethics advisors and senior leaders will likely be resistant to this approach and I explained why.
In a subsequent posting in September entitled “Blogging @ Work.gc.ca”, I went a step further:
  • I attempted to show that when it comes to questions of values and ethics, it is just as easy for someone to prove that an employee did something wrong than prove that what he did was right.
  • Using my own involvement in PS Renewal as a case study, I demonstrated that my Department's expectations of what makes me a “good” employee given my official duties can somewhat be at odds with the Clerk's expectations of public servants with regards to PS Renewal, and pointed to the values and ethics implications.
  • I illustrated with some personal examples the sort of contradictory advice this might lead to when employees try to stay on the “safe side” of values and ethics.
If you haven't read these two postings, I recommend you do as I will try to avoid the duplication of arguments with this third installment. In this posting, I will expand on some of the ideas I introduced in my earlier postings, and I will further my critique of how values and ethics are currently being applied in the federal public service.

Before I proceed, it is worth clarifying where my interest in values and ethics comes from:
  • Although I am not an HR specialist in the formal sense of the word, much of my work is HR-related: staffing, recruitment, learning, training, change management, organization development, labour relations, conflict prevention, employees relations, people management, etc. By virtue of my responsibilities, I have been exposed to some fairly challenging situations where I felt I was facing an impossible dilemma, where no course of action was entirely right, nor entirely wrong. In these situations, I had to resort to my personal values and ethics in order to find a solution. I won't go into the specifics of the cases I had to deal with, but I will refer you to some fairly similar examples drawn from the world of education (see this document, pp. 10-11). You will see that the examples provided by the author are not unlike what public service managers and HR advisors have to deal with on a regular basis.
  • On a few occasions, I have sought formal advice from our departmental values and ethics advisors. In some other cases, I was asked to provide information in values and ethics investigations involving employees of my organization.
  • Finally, as you may know, I had the privilege of being investigated for allegedly breaching the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service.
As a result of all these experiences, I have noticed some trends in the way values and ethics are currently applied in the federal public service. That being said, I am not an expert on the topic, and I often find it difficult to put words on what I am observing. In such cases, it is not unusual for me to turn to unlikely sources of wisdom to make sense of the world around me. As it turned out, last week I found a great source of insight in an episode of the NBC hit series "The Office". Not surprisingly, the title of the episode was "Business Ethics". The scene that enlightened me involved Holly, the new HR advisor, who had to deliver a workshop on ethics, and the staff of Dunder-Mifflin:

Holly: Ok. [to everyone] Michael makes a really good point so, uh, let's just open this up a little bit. Say my name is Lauren and here I am shopping in a supermarket and I steal a pencil. That's not right.
Michael: [coughs to hide his words] Lauren, [coughs] enough with the pencils.
Holly: No, I have to go over pencils and office supplies. It's part of the ethics thing.
Oscar: That isn't ethics. Ethics is a real discussion of the competing conceptions of the good. This is just the corporate anti-shoplifting rules.
Andy: I'll drop an ethics bomb on you. Would you steal bread to feed your family? ... Boom!
Oscar: Exactly, Andy.
Andy: Yeah, I took intro to philosophy, twice. No big deal.

I found the scene insightful (and hilarious!) for a number of reasons expressed in Oscar’s definition of “ethics”:
  1. He correctly points out that wrongdoing – such as stealing office supplies - is not ethics.
  2. He invokes the need for a “real discussion”.
  3. He defines ethics as “competing conceptions of the good”.
Oscar's point is then illustrated with Andy’s “ethics bomb”, which he remembered from his “intro to philosophy” class. I found the scene brilliant as the goofy cast of characters were in fact putting the finger on what I feel is an important shortfall of values and ethics in the federal public service, which translates in an extremely narrow understanding and application of ethics. Hence, the title of this posting: “Values and Ethics in the Public Service of Canada: Tautology or Missed Opportunity?”.

The Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service begins with a definition of the role of the Public Service of Canada: “The role of the Public Service is to assist the Government of Canada to provide for peace, order and good government. The Constitution of Canada and the principles of responsible government provide the foundation for Public Service roles, responsibilities and values. The democratic mission of the Public Service is to assist Ministers, under law, to serve the public interest.

The statement couldn’t be clearer. The rest of the code expands on what it actually means to “assist Ministers, under law, and to serve the public interest”, in other words, how to be a “good” public servant. For this reason, I personally find the notion of values and ethics a little redundant or pointless, depending on how it is framed. It is redundant because the role of public service is clear enough and therefore an explanation of what it means to be a “good public” such as what we find in the Code is somewhat repetitive. It just sounds like it's re-stating the obvious (and already well defined) role of the public service. In other words, the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service seems like a tautology.

It is also pointless because when it comes to issues of values and ethics, the guidance we may need as public servants seldom involves cases where the right course of action is obvious, but rather cases where what seems like the better course of action is in conflict to various degrees with what should be expected of a “good” public servant.

In that sense, the current focus on wrongdoing in values and ethics investigations adds nothing to our understanding of values and ethics in the federal public service. Blatant examples of wrongdoing are self-evident. We don't need a Code of Values and Ethics to understand them; the Code merely provides a legal justification to deal appropriately with the wrongdoers. As Oscar from The Office pointed out earlier, stealing is not a matter of ethics.

Instead, ethics is about “competing conceptions of the good”. The Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service does describe many “conceptions of the good” that may be competing against each other in the work of public servants. In order to talk about ethics, we must first acknowledge that the action under scrutiny actually involves competing conceptions of the good – not simply wrongdoing. This is where things tend to go sideways.

Values and ethics advisors, investigators, managers, and senior executives must recognize that the moment a matter is brought to their attention, it is very likely it will involve some kind of conflict with the role of public servants to assist ministers and/or serve the public interest. The conflict may fall in one of two categories:
a) the blatant case of wrongdoing; or,
b) the “Catch 22” type of situation where any course of action seems to fall in a “grey area”.

I don't work in Values and Ethics, but from the work I do on HR stuff, I would have to guess that 99% of the cases fall in the second category. I will also add that the 1% of cases blatant wrongdoing rarely (if ever) needs to go to values and ethics, precisely because it involves wrongdoing – and it's usually that obvious!

But when you have a situation that falls into the “grey area” – as I assume it is the case for most matters going to Values and Ethics – whoever simply concludes that there is a breach of the Code is not only failing to grasp the complexity of the dilemma at hands, he or she is also totally missing the point of values and ethics: to find the better course of action in a situation where it is not possible to uphold all the public service values at once.

The whole purpose of ethics is then to contrast the behaviours that are in line with what should be expected of a good public servant with those behaviours that are not, which can only be achieved by bringing values into the equation. Failure to do this means failure of the values and ethics process. This is the first major shortcoming of how values and ethics are currently applied in the federal public service. Instead, the exercise of contrasting the conflicting behaviours based on values (i.e. conceptions of the “good”) seems to cede to a bleak quest for wrongdoing. But simply nailing the employee for what he did wrong contributes to nothing, as it doesn't provide public servants any tool address the dilemma or make the better decision next time. The way I see it, it goes against the whole idea of having a Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service in the first place.

Next, contrasting the conflicting behaviours based on values (i.e. conceptions of the good) can only happen through a "real discussion", as Oscar explained. This appears to be the second major shortcoming of how values and ethics are currently applied in the federal public service. Again, I'm only talking from my personal experience, but when I was investigated for allegedly breaching the Code, I was never asked a single question, never had an opportunity to give my side of the story, never got a chance to explain what “values” guided my actions. In short, no discussion ever took place. Values were a non-issue; the investigation was not about ethics (competing conceptions of the good) but rather proving wrongdoing. Perhaps we need a structured process (such as this one) to force these “real discussions” to take place...

Despite the rhetoric to the effect that the Code of Values and Ethics is intended to provide ethical guidance, it seems to me that public servants, in fact, are not free to make ethical choices. Instead, the organization imposes its ethics on the employee. Not only is this approach disconnected from the reality of how public servant operate on a day-to-day basis, and not only does it provide a disincentive for public servants to exercise any kind of judgment in the course of their duties, it also suggests that ethics is in fact “a disguise for power”, as Gordon Lafer expressed in his article entitled “The Critical Failure of Workplace Ethics”.

So let's go back to the original question that served as a basis for this posting: “Values and Ethics in the Public Service of Canada: Tautology or Missed Opportunity?” In this posting, I have tried to articulate that:
  • The Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service describes in greater detail what we already know to be the role of the Public Service of Canada.
  • Wrongdoing is not “ethics”. Instead, ethics involves competing conceptions of the good. Failure to recognize these competing conceptions of the good therefore leads directly to a failure of the ethical process. If values and ethics investigations only seek to determine the existence of wrongdoing, there is no point in having a Code, other than using it as a legal basis for punishing the wrongdoer.
  • Ethics must involve a real discussion in order to fully understand the ethical choice made by the public servant. The absence of such a discussion is the equivalent of denying the public servant the freedom to make ethical choices based on the Code. This, in turn, defies the purpose of having a Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service.
As it stands right now, I would have to conclude that values and ethics in the federal public service are a missed opportunity more than a tautology. But with the right people and the right minds, it's still not too late to make the most of the opportunity. In a future posting, I intend to recommend some readings, models and frameworks that offer solutions to the current values and ethics dead-end.


Anonymous said...

Well said. It might help to look at "PS wrongdoing" and "PS excellence in managing multiple aims in tension" as two extremes on a spectrum with many positions in between. To give the central agencies credit, for example, they at least realize that balancing compliance with "lawful ministerial directives" with giving "all relevant non-partisan advice" upwards is often not a cut-and-dried matter where "right" and "wrong" are easily demarcated. But you're right, there is some mysterious force ever pushing the general notion towards black-and-white "compliance".
It may be one small hopeful sign that the values and ethics office at Indian and Northern Affairs is now classified as an ES group position unlike most of the other departments. Once we see how these issues are fundamentally like other policy challenges, the quality of supporting measures will benefit.

Anonymous said...

Commenting on an old post, but I just ran across it and read it, so why not. I think you make a truly excellent point about how the Values and Ethics Code isn't what it should be: a thoughtful framework for thinking about the ethical situations a public servant is likely to encounter. Instead, it's about expressing one particular vision of "what is ethical", based on one particular (implied) hierarchy of "public goods".

My issue with the Code is that everytime I've seen it presented or read it, I've gotten the unfortunate feeling that my hierarchy of public goods isn't the one that the PS is trying to make me accept. Making ethical choices is something I take very seriously, and my key values are part of the the Code. They just happen to be the ones that are traded-off most easily, it seems, when the Values and Ethics advisors view them as being in conflict with other key PS values.

In any case, rambling perhaps, but thank you for this post.