Article

Redefining Ethics in Public Administration: Unmasking Administrative Evil

Presented By: Dr. Guy Adams, Associate Director and Professor, The Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs and 2006 TLG Keynote Speaker

The common characteristic of administrative evil is that ordinary
people within their normal professional and administrative roles can engage in acts of evil without being aware that they are doing anything wrong.  Under conditions of moral inversion, people may even view their evil activity as good.  Adams will discuss the overlooked relationship between evil and public administration, as well as other fields and professions in public life.   In an age when "bureaucrat bashing" is fashionable, Adams seeks to move beyond such superficial critiques and lay the groundwork for a more ethical and democratic public life, one that recognizes its potential for evil and thereby creates greater possibilities for avoiding the hidden pathways that lead to dehumanization and destruction.

Presented By: Dr. Guy Adams, Associate Director and Professor, The Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs and 2006 TLG Keynote Speaker

The common characteristic of administrative evil is that ordinary
people within their normal professional and administrative roles can engage in acts of evil without being aware that they are doing anything wrong.  Under conditions of moral inversion, people may even view their evil activity as good.  Adams will discuss the overlooked relationship between evil and public administration, as well as other fields and professions in public life.   In an age when "bureaucrat bashing" is fashionable, Adams seeks to move beyond such superficial critiques and lay the groundwork for a more ethical and democratic public life, one that recognizes its potential for evil and thereby creates greater possibilities for avoiding the hidden pathways that lead to dehumanization and destruction.

What is Administrative Evil?

The basic difference between evil as it has appeared throughout human history, and administrative evil, which is a fundamentally modern phenomenon, is that the latter is less easily recognized as evil. People have always been able to delude themselves into thinking that their evil acts are not really so bad, and we have certainly had moral inversions in times past. But there are three very important differences in administrative evil. One is our modern inclination to un-name evil, an old concept that does not lend itself well to today’s scientific-analytic mindset . The second difference is found in the structure of the modern, complex organization, which diffuses individual responsibility and requires the compartmentalized accomplishment of role expectations in order to perform work on a daily basis. The third difference is the highly technical and analytic processes by which public policy is formulated and implemented, so that moral inversions are now more likely.

While administrative evil is most dangerous when an entire nation or society falls into it, it can appear in a local government context, even though it is less likely. Many have experienced the "sick city" which cycles through multiple city managers. How are immigrant populations dealt with in your jurisdiction? Are the most "offensive" groups in your community treated with professionalism? What bad habits have you fallen into lately? It may not be as far as you think from bad habits to administrative evil.

Everyone has heard of the "do no harm" principle, used in medicine and other professional fields. My focus on administrative evil is motivated by what you might call the "do no great, catastrophic harm" principle, because when we get it terribly wrong, thousands, even millions of people can die needlessly. Overall, I want all of us in public service to do the right thing even more than I want us to do things right!

This keynote is based on Dr. Guy Adams’ book Unmasking Administrative Evil.

Unmasking Administrative Evil won the 1998 Louis Brownlow Book Award, the National Academy of Public Administration’s highest award for excellence in public administration scholarship, as well as the 1998 Best Book Award from the Public and Nonprofit Division of the Academy of Management and the 2002 Best Book Award from the Social Issues in Management Division of the Academy of Management.

Biography

Dr. Adams earned his doctorate in public administration from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. His areas of expertise include public service ethics and organizational culture. He has engaged in organizational consultations and management training with state and local governments, as well as higher education organizations, across the nation. Adams also co-authored The Tacit Organization (JAI Press, 1992), and has over sixty scholarly publications, including books, book chapters and scholarly articles in the top national public administration journals.

He currently serves as Co-Editor-in-Chief of the American Review of Public Administration, and is on the Editorial Boards of Policy and Society; Journal of Contemporary Issues in Business and Government; and the Journal of Public Administration Education. In 1995, Adams received the prestigious William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence, given annually to ten faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia in campus-wide competition. In 2001, he received the Outstanding Service Award from the Association of Master of Public Administration Students of the Truman School. He has served as Chair of both the Section on Public Administration Research and the Section on Public Administration Education of the American Society for Public Administration; on the Executive Committee of the Public Administration Section, American Political Science Association; and is a member of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.

For more information, you may contact Dr. Guy Adams at 573.882.5443 or email Adams, Guy B. Adams@missouri.edu.

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