Friday, June 27, 2008

On Values and Ethics

(UPDATED, July 3, 2008)

My favourite source of information on PS Renewal is the blog I even subscribe to the RSS feed so that every day I have instant, up-to-date information about matters relating to PS Renewal. Recently, the authors of the blog have started to write weekly columns. The topic of their very first column was values and ethics. This was a pleasant surprise, since I have been thinking for a few months about writing an article on values and ethics in the federal public service.

Chris Baker, Deputy Minister with the province of New Brunswick, explains in an interview with the magazine Canadian Government Executive:
“The debate is about whether the actions of public servants ought to be defined by rules, or defined by values and ethics. […] Given that you have highly skilled, highly trained people employed in the public service, doesn’t it make sense to involve them in the process of creating ideas, testing ideas and implementing them? Don’t you want more than compliance? You want them to be active, proactive and thoughtful. […] It’s really exciting to hear from public servants themselves on this issue. It’s giving us a chance to know what ideas and values people bring to work with them that you might not pick out of a textbook.”
I agree 100% with the thinking. However, there is a significant gap between the rhetoric and the reality. Here's why...
I have had the chance to experience public service values and ethics firsthand. Shortly after I released my now infamous paper “An Inconvenient Renewal: Are Public Service Managers Ready to Change the Way They Manage?”, someone, somewhere, filed a complaint to the values and ethics branch of my department. An investigation followed and ultimately concluded that I had not breached the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service. However, the way the whole investigation was carried out confirmed some impressions I entertained about how values and ethics are currently applied in the federal public service.
Before I share my impressions on values and ethics, I should explain how I felt during the investigation. It was a very difficult experience that caused me undue stress. I felt my character and integrity were called into question when I was labeled as being “disloyal” and when it was suggested that I was criticizing a government program. While I used PS Renewal and the federal public service as a backdrop, the problems I discussed in my paper can be observed in many organizations - public, private and not-for-profit alike. If you've worked in a large private organization, chances are you've probably witnessed or experienced much of what I describe in “An Inconvenient Renewal”. Nothing I wrote was a secret. I merely said out loud what most people think quietly and know to be true. Anyone who took the time to read my paper for what it was meant to be understood that the real criticism was not against PS Renewal or the federal public service, but rather against bad managers and poor people management. But I digress…
The point I want to make today is that what we call “values and ethics” in the federal public service currently boils down to wrongdoing. The main focus of the investigation I was subject to was to prove that I had done something wrong… anything really! Although the breach to the Code was labeled a conflict of interest, the exact nature of my offense was unclear. In fact, it was fascinating to see how many different avenues the investigators explored and how far they went to demonstrate – without success – that I had done something wrong. It was as if I was guilty until proven otherwise. It had all the characteristics of a witch hunt, only it was done under the cover of “values and ethics”.
The investigation was only concerned by what I may have done wrong, and it never considered for a moment what I had done right (in short, blamability at its very best!). I was never asked what were the underlying values of my paper, what was my intention in writing it, and what I hoped to achieve by releasing it. If I would have been asked these questions, the investigators would have found out: how deeply I value respect for people and their dignity; how strongly I feel about good management and the importance of the role of managers; and how I hoped that my paper would be the starting point to a conversation on what needs to change in the public service so that we can improve it.
In a way, my paper directly supported and reinforced a number of values described in the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service, such as:
Professional Values: Serving with competence, excellence, efficiency, objectivity and impartiality.
  • Public servants should constantly renew their commitment to serve Canadians by continually improving the quality of service, by adapting to changing needs through innovation, and by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs and services.
People Values: Demonstrating respect, fairness and courtesy in their dealings with both citizens and fellow public servants.
  • Respect for human dignity and the value of every person should always inspire the exercise of authority and responsibility.
As Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. explains in his book “Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right”, matters of values and ethics can not always be boiled down to right versus wrong. “Difficult questions like these are often matters of right versus right, not right versus wrong. Sometimes, a [person] faces a difficult problem and must choose between two ways of resolving it. Each alternative is the right thing to do, but there is no way to do both.”
By over-simplifying the investigation to a matter of right versus wrong, the Values and Ethics investigators surely made their job easier and probably thought they were fulfilling their responsibility to the government. But in doing so, the investigators’ inability to elevate the dilemma to a matter of right versus right resulted in a failure to answer a more difficult question, i.e. holding two equally right values conflicting with one another and assessing which right value has the greatest importance.
Had the Values and Ethics investigators held values such as “loyalty” against the professional values and people values I quoted above and made an effort to determine which elements had the highest importance, the investigation could have shifted from a bleak quest for wrongdoing to a unique opportunity to make a powerful statement about the public service values, i.e. people management matters! The investigation could also have used my case as a reminder that “Public Service organizations should be led through participation, openness and communication and with respect for diversity.”
But none of this happened. (Instead, the investigation turned into a technical analysis of my paper, my blog, my peripheral activities at work and even some of my professional relationships – I kid you not! Oh! And the icing on the cake? I didn't breach the Code because I was "exercising my right of freedom of expression"!)
Badaracco argues that:
“Right-versus-right choices are best understood as dealing moments. These are decisions with three basic characteristics: they reveal, they test, and they shape. In other words, a right-versus-right decision can reveal an organization’s basic values. At the same time, the decision tests the strength of the commitments that an organization has made. Finally, the decision casts a shadow forward. […] Defining moments shape an organization because they cut through all of the finely crafted pronouncements about what the company aspires to and reveal instead what it actually does. These episodes set precedents and create expectations that shape a company for years even longer. They define the purpose of the organization and at the same time how the organization will pursue its purpose. […] Defining moments also indelibly color the image that employees others have of an organization and its leaders. Clearly, defining moments are high-stakes episodes.”
My experience with being investigated for allegedly breaching the Code of Values and Ethics has taught me a few lessons which I hope will make their way to Senior Leaders who champion Values and Ethics in the federal public service. On the top of my list, I would suggest the need for a clear and urgent interpretation of the following statement taken from the Code of Values and Ethics: “In the Public Service, how ends are achieved should be as important as the achievements themselves.” This statement can indeed be interpreted in many ways.
One interpretation is that in order to comply with the Code, both the means and the end must be “right”, and the Code is breached if one uses the wrong means to achieve the right end, and vice-versa.
However, another interpretation assumes that if the means and the end are equally important, then the decision is not 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. If the values called into question by the means are more important than the values supported by the end, there may be a breach of the Code. But if the values supported by the end are more important than the values called into question by the means, then there may be compliance with the Code because the values with the highest priority are not only respected but reinforced.
Based on my experience, the gatekeepers of Values and Ethics in the public service are no yet equipped to deal with that kind of thinking, for a number of reasons.
First, if we elevate a values and ethics investigation to a matter of right versus right instead of an over-simplified matter of right versus wrong, we have to accept that the situation we are looking at is not entirely wrong but not entirely right, neither black or white. To most people, this is difficult and discomforting, and that is why they would rather find something wrong and close the case.
Second, it implies that the decision resulting from the investigation will be imperfect, conflicting, and most likely fallible if subject to the Globe and Mail test (and therefore open to challenge, criticism and public scrutiny).
Third, it means there will be no one-size fits all, each situation requiring to be studied on a case by case basis. Consequently, Values and Ethics advisors and Deputy Heads alike will have to rely on their own personal values and make very hard choices which will undoubtedly shape the Public Service of Canada and, in turn, its values. No question about it: it’s a tough call that requires a lot of courage! But courage is the difference between having principles and living by these principles. Courage can make or break a leader.
Fortunately, I received outstanding support from my managers during the investigation. Moreover, a number of public servants – including many senior officials – saw great value in my paper and took some risks in circulating it and increasing its visibility and accessibility. They were able to look beyond “right versus wrong” and they took actions that affirmed what they personally valued and how they wanted to live the Public Service values.
Another thing I hope to see in a near future would be a check and balance system to:
a) Protect public servants against prejudice caused by false / unfounded accusations of breach to the Values and Ethics Code (similar to what many suggest is required to protect employees against false / unfounded accusations of harassment, which can permanently hurt the accused's reputation and career); and
b) Protect public servants against excessive zeal (or downright abuse of power) in the application of the Code (a sort of equivalent to the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act - but reversed!)

As long as values and ethics are synonym with wrongdoing, a real risk will exist... Unless, of course, values and ethics leaders are willing to consider "right-doing" and balance the equation.