Ethics in Real Time: Varied Lenses and Professional Judgment

Reconciling the Personal, Professional, Community, and National Dimensions of an Ethical Decision. [PM Magazine, March 2020]

By Phillip J. Cooper | Mar 1, 2020 | ARTICLE

I was teaching the ICMA Code of Ethics in my Local Government Administration class at Portland State University not long ago. Later, as I thought about that session and what managers do on a regular basis, as well as what is happening on the national stage, I thought back to Aaron Wildavsky’s warning in his well-known book, Speaking Truth to Power : “[T]here must be and are, limits: everything is not allowed.”1

That commitment has never been more critical than it is today, so I sent a message to managers with appreciation for the fact that they do this on a regular basis. What surprised me was the number of emails I received in return from managers expressing their own appreciation, but also noting that they had recently faced just such situations or indeed are currently confronting them.

Of course, the fact is that there is far more involved in the wide range of decisions that managers make every day that have ethical dimensions than just that very intense ultimate choice about saying no to key officials. A range of such choices crops up in real time within widely varied contexts. And it is not just a matter of a manager making a decision. There are most often a number of people involved and more than one way to view the situation. Indeed, the reality of ethical choices in real time brings to mind Miles’s Law: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”2

Miles was not saying that everyone is simply self-interested. He was making it clear that everyone has a set of lenses through which he or she views public service challenges. The lenses have been shaped by life experience, values, and education, among other factors. The lenses through which different people view the world color the decisions they make and the lenses others have affect the way those decisions are received and understood. Watching local government professional leaders over the years, there are a number of situations that make it clear that choices are not just reflex responses to the Code of Ethics, as important as it is, but a complex matter of judgment shaped by such factors as experience, education, and professional norms. These different lenses matter.

A Variety of Perspectives and Norms

One of the difficulties for local government professionals in dealing with ethics challenges is understanding the different lenses involved. It is not just a question of a manager’s obligations under the code, as fundamental as they are to professional ethics. The other perspectives include individual (personal), organizational, community, and national (sometimes called societal) perspectives. These sets of norms are not always consistent with one another.

Individual ethics derive from family values, education, lived experience, and faith-based sources. This last one is interesting because although professionals understand the need to avoid imposing their religion on someone else, they also acknowledge that faith matters to many managers in daily life.

Of course, managers are also professionals and they know that the Code of Ethics was central to the creation of the council-manager and county administrator forms of government. It remains so today. In fact, it is interesting—with all of the changes that have taken place—to look at the original 1924 version of the Code to see how similar it is to the contemporary version (albeit recognizing the gender-specific language of the day).

At the same time, local government organizations often employ a range of people with various professional affiliations, each with its own code of ethics. There are engineers, planners, accountants, law enforcement officers, and more. In some cases, their codes of ethics may have a very different focus or prioritize certain behaviors differently, even as the city manager works to educate the entire staff about the importance of the ICMA Code.

This last point emphasizes the fact that organizational ethics matter. What adds to the complexity in organizations is that there can be differences between the values and accepted modes of conduct that an organization announces publicly and the informal norms that make up a kind of organizational operating code of ethics. This has often been the subject of discussion with respect to police departments, where the department tells the city and its residents what the expectations are of the officers and the department as a whole, when it is quite clear to officers within the department that the expectations of their colleagues and even their superiors can be quite different from those public pronouncements.

This situation is particularly dysfunctional when people within the organization realize that rewards or punishments are meted out more in accordance with the informal expectations as compared to the formally asserted norms. That problem is not limited to police departments. Indeed, it can apply to an entire city or county organization. Vaclav Havel made this kind of contradiction the subject of his first speech as president of the Czech Republic. He warned, “The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we got used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only for ourselves.”3 He insisted that what is needed is “morality in practice.” This problem goes very directly to the question of organizational culture and, as any manager knows, it is a major challenge to bring about full-scale culture change in any organization—and usually a long-term endeavor.

Of course, there is also a community ethic. As James Svara has explained in great detail, there are often serious problems of fit when a manager with one set of skills and personal characteristics comes to a community with service and governance expectations that are quite different from those already in play in the city.4 The elected members of the governing body are the ones normally expected to express community norms, but sometimes even they get out of sync with the community they are supposed to serve.

In other cases, the council, the manager, and the staff need to lead efforts to bring about change in the community, which means seeking to educate and encourage culture change not only within the organization, but in the community as a whole. The Ferguson, Missouri, case is an obvious, if painful, example.

Then, of course, as the late John Rohr explained in his classic book on public sector ethics, there are national norms, often closely connected with principles featured in the Constitution and laws of the nation, such as due process of law and equal protection of the law.5 Although most people are quick to claim that they are committed to the norms that make the country great, the reality is that there are many political cultures in the country and the way that people across the nation understand and live the national ethics can vary widely.

Whether they stop to think of it that way or not, when managers make decisions, they are judged and the responses come from people looking through lenses colored by all of these perspectives.

Common, Yet Unique Challenges in Real Time

Anyone who watches managers go about their work can see a variety of scenarios that seem to crop up time after time, though it is important to remember that context counts and every situation presents unique challenges. They do not always have clear answers, but they are instructive nevertheless. In the process, it is useful to keep the different lenses in mind. Some are dramatic and can lead to a manager leaving, but others are ongoing challenges and the manager and the staff must live with their responses to the situation.

Ethics Education for the Council and for the Organization

Managers often come into a community that has had difficulties. Consider the case of one city manager, an experienced professional who came into the job with an awareness that helping the city move to a better future would be challenging and could very well come at a cost. It is very common to find at the root of this kind of situation the fact that some members of the governing body do not understand the council-manager form of government and do not understand or accept the constraints on their authority or discretion.

Managers in this situation often try to educate the members, either by accessing formal training through a league of cities or an outside educator or facilitator. In addition, they also try to engage in team building, often using the goal-setting process or a strategic planning effort as a vehicle. In this case, the manager tried a variety of tactics to support the council, encourage civility and cooperation, and help the elected officials arrive at and maintain a constructive focus. Of course, at the same time, she had to work with staff to help heal wounds of the past and encourage them to see a brighter future.

However, in some instances these kinds of efforts lead particularly difficult members of the governing body to see the manager as the problem. At that point, the manager has to maintain her ethical obligations to deal with all members equally, even when it is clear that the problem individuals do not see themselves as bound by similar ethical commitments. That takes a toll on the manager, as she continues to get the city’s business done and support the council in the process, all the while aware that some members of the governing body are working against her. It also takes a toll on other members of the governing body and the staff.

The disgruntled individuals may choose an issue as a focus of attack that is not direct, but that seeks to undermine the manager and increase their own influence over staff and administration. In many cases, like this one, the manager knows that if she can stay with the effort, and the other members of the governing body see good things happening in the community, it may help to transform not only behavior within the council, but also with the staff and the manager.

Given their training and experience, most managers know that if this takes too long, or if the problem behavior proves toxic to the organization, it may be time to leave. It turned out that in this example, the governing body had some members who were not ready to change and were unwilling to recognize the boundaries to their authority required by the form of government. The manager left, but even so, she had helped the community recognize the challenges it faced in terms of its leadership. In fact, the community signaled its support of the manager’s efforts by defeating a ballot measure designed to weaken the manager and the form of government. In this case, the manager had certainly honored the requirements of the ICMA Code of Ethics and helped the community recognize the challenges it faced with community-level norms. She also helped to heal the organization and strengthen the staff’s sense of positive organizational ethics.

Explaining the Boundaries to the Public: Protecting the Staff from Public Abuse

Another increasingly common scenario arises when the public service professional has to deal with incivility that can threaten the safety of staff. It is interesting that the term “staff” is used only once in the ICMA Code of Ethics and that is with respect to the obligation to ensure a diverse staff (see guideline for Tenet 11) and the term “employee” is only mentioned in Tenet 3 and guidelines to that tenet.

It is one thing when a local leader is dealing with his or her own situation and effectiveness, but quite another when the manager has to face the community and protect the staff. Yet today, when so many members of staff find themselves facing unacceptable behavior by some in the community, one of the key obligations of managers is to ensure not only the safety, but also—at least in terms of the workplace—the well-being of staff members. The increasingly common inappropriate and uncivil behavior is only made worse by toxic political rhetoric at the national level and the message that public employees are not worthy of civility.

In one case, a city had a long-standing history of activists in the community addressing the council and staff. In recent years, and in too many cases, the behavior had become just plain threatening, with not only the use of foul language, but actually things being thrown at staff.

The challenge was how to both protect free speech and encourage active participation by community members while also taking care of staff. Efforts to enforce rules related to the public comment period and to impose sanctions such as limitations on future appearances by uncivil citizens had resulted in warnings from courts and accusations by some of those affected that the city was taking retribution for opposition to city actions.6

Council can publish rules for a public comment period and take security precautions for offices, but that often does not adequately address the situation. In this case, a city commissioner worked with staff in an effort to find ways to protect staff members not only from uncivil and even unsafe behavior at meetings, but also to ensure their safety in the office. It happens that this was in a larger city, but the problem has become increasingly common and, in some cases, acute, in smaller communities, even in rural areas often known for positive community ethics.

In this case, the leader of this effort tragically passed away from an illness he battled valiantly, all the while continuing his effort to deal with incivility and to protect staff. However, his efforts did play a key role in the passage of a stronger city ordinance concerning problematic or dangerous behavior.7

In the process, he urged the city and its residents to come to grips with behaviors that threaten the community’s norms. He was clear to all involved that the community would have to deal with this in the face of a national context that was facing serious civility challenges and even conveying toxicity down to the community level. He also made clear an obligation to the safety and well-being of staff, a central professional obligation even though it is not clearly articulated in the Code of Ethics. In so doing, he was seeking to integrate all of these perspectives consistently with his own personal ethics as well.

Sunlight as the Best Disinfectant: Airing Serious Problems8

In another case, a city had been having difficulties related to officials in the police department. Indeed, there had been serious issues between the then-police chief and previous managers. There were retirements and other changes, but some of the problems continued and affected a range of people in other city departments. The situation was complex and involved allegations of misconduct by others in the organization. It was increasingly clear to both the city manager and elected officials that the organizational ethics were threatened by these behaviors, along with the confidence of city residents.

The city manager encouraged the council to bring in an outside law firm to investigate and received a thorough report that made clear a number of serious problems. The challenge was what to do to address the problems, not only with respect to specific individuals employed by the city, but also how to deal with declining public confidence in the city by its residents.

Normally, these kinds of investigations remain internal for obvious reasons, but the concern was that keeping the report private would not help to heal the wounds and might even raise questions about transparency. It is not just that there are legal risks, but also the fear of further undermining community confidence by disclosing inappropriate behavior within the organization.

In an unusual move, the interim manager recommended that the council exercise a provision in state law that allowed for disclosure of such reports. In fact, state law provided that: “a public body may not disclose information about a personnel investigation of a public safety employee if the investigation does not result in discipline.” However, it goes on to allow exceptions, including a case in which “the public body determines that nondisclosure of the information would adversely affect the confidence of the public in the public body.”

In the recitals to the resolution releasing the report, the city council with the city manager’s support and encouragement wrote:

The underlying complaint alleged misconduct by and between Managers and Department Heads of the City. The City Council therefore believes failure to disclose the Final Investigation Report would be perceived by the public as an attempt by the City Council to cover up potential improper conduct. This perception would adversely affect the public’s confidence in the City Council and the City. Transparency to the extent allowed and protected by law, is important to the City. Subject to protection of the attorney-client privileged communications and Personal Identifying Information, the City wishes to disclose the Investigation Report.

The report exonerated a number of people, but also made serious findings with respect to some others.

The response was immediate and positive with reporting and editorials in the local press lauding the city for “striking a mighty blow on behalf of government transparency.” The full press coverage provided a lengthy summary of the report, which helped inform community residents, relatively few of whom were likely to take the time to read the full report. The problems were clear and there would be no attempt to minimize them. The interim city manager explained, “I think the fact that you have a council willing to be this transparent is impressive in itself. . . . I think people ultimately will understand. It was a challenge they wrestled with; nobody really wants to talk about the bad news. But they felt it was important people understand the objective truth.”

In so doing, he not only addressed other obvious tenets of the Code of Ethics, such as Tenet 3, which speaks to maintaining the trust of the public, but also honored the requirement in Tenet 6 that managers “recognize that elected representatives of the people are entitled to the credit for the establishment of local government policies. . . .” In the process, the manager and the council addressed the threats to the community’s norms, reinforced the positive core values of the community, and removed a cloud over the organization and the staff to allow the work that needs to be done to improve organizational ethics going forward. It is equally clear that this is a case in which the lenses came together to form a picture that is both healing and promising.

The Clash of Values: Supporting Staff Concerns While Honoring Professional Obligations

Of course, not all situations are as direct and relatively stark in terms of choices. Consider the case of a manager dealing with the clash between the turmoil in national norms and those of staff within a city, in terms of organizational, community, and personal ethics. The intensity of conflict within the United States—and one would add other countries as well—and the intensity of partisan and ideological differences is a toxic brew that has afflicted not only national and state politics, but local communities as well.

Of course, even people who have no wish to be involved in toxic interactions can still be seriously affected by policies and administrative actions at other levels of government that hit home in the community. Staff within local government organizations are citizens of their community as well and are, like other residents, affected by national decisions that they find abhorrent.

What happens when staff members want to know what the manager’s reaction is to these policies and other statements from national and state political leaders? In this case, the manager faced employees who wanted to know where he stood on some of these matters. Honoring his professional obligations under the Code of Ethics, as well as his own sense of good leadership in the community, he explained that the local government is nonpartisan and that the manager cannot take partisan positions or allow his personal views to interfere with professionals obligations. He also made clear that those employed in the organization needed to be careful not to undermine the credibility of the city. Employees may have free speech rights, but professionally it is critical to avoid embroiling the city in what are clearly political matters.

At the same time, the manager had his or her own views and felt strongly about what is happening. More than that, he knew that employees cannot help but be affected by their own sense of what key values are in jeopardy from their point of view. There has always been some level of tension about this kind of issue, but the times in which we live have exacerbated the situation.

What is clear in the manager’s response is that he was going to maintain his professional obligations under the Code of Ethics, but also that he must ensure that he interacts with staff in ways that respect their struggles between their professional obligations while remaining sensitive to the stress they were experiencing as individuals. Empathy may not appear in the Code, but it matters. This situation is an ongoing challenge and can take its toll over time. This manager’s dilemma is certainly a sign of serious challenges for the nation and its communities, but curiously it has at least had the positive effect of causing thoughtful professionals to consider the situation of the staff in the complex mix of ethics, as well as their own position. That is, of course, not to suggest that all is well. Far from it.

Staying for the Staff: Loyalty to Professional Organizational Development

Consider one last positive case. A city had faced a challenging past, with some very problematic elected leadership. Almost all senior professional staff had left. However, a new council was elected and its members wanted to move forward in a positive way. A new, but experienced, manager arrived and plunged into the mix of internal management issues and community service needs, along with support for this ambitious new set of council members.

The first decision was a classic one: Should he replace existing managers and department heads with new people, marking a clean break with the past; or try to identify talent within the existing staff and develop their skills so that they could bring the city into a better future? He chose the latter course, recognizing it would take time and a good deal of his own energy to do the required professional development work while also addressing council priorities and city service challenges.

Good things happened. Among the most important of these gains was a significant increase in community engagement activities. This was a significant challenge in part because of the large Latino population, most of whom had never felt that they were welcome to participate in city decisions. Also, a variety of residents became engaged who were working hard to make ends meet and had relatively little free time, but cared about city services and their children’s future.

Then, some of the old guard managed to get a majority of members elected to council with a mayor bent on taking back control and going back to what he and his colleagues saw as the “good old days.” The mayor made no secret of his intentions to fire the city manager and other key staff, as he and his colleagues were not interested in training to understand their role, the city government, or anything else. They knew what they wanted to do.

The manager had an obvious choice. He could leave and, in his case, clearly find another position quickly, and one that would relieve him of the challenge of dealing with the situation in the city. Of course, if he did that, he would be leaving his staff, which was coming along in a variety of important ways and much happier with their prospects for the future before the recent turn of events. He would also be leaving a community that had been working through a change to be the more inclusive and engaged city that it could be.

The manager chose to stay, knowing that it would only be a matter of time before the new council majority would terminate him. Still, when the first council meeting came, the public turned out to support the manager, the staff, and the direction in which the city had been moving. The mayor did not have the votes and so agreed to reevaluate the manager later in the year. The manager knew this was not likely to last.

However, in the meantime he worked with staff to help those who wanted to stay as much as he could and to assist those who knew they needed to leave to find a path forward. All the while, he was absorbing the punishment from the mayor and some of his colleagues who wanted him gone. It was not long thereafter that he was terminated, but long enough to help the staff and the organization. On the evening of the council meeting when he was fired, he received a standing ovation from a packed city council chamber. As soon as the required six-month limit on recall elections had passed, the mayor and the other two council members were turned out by an overwhelming majority in an election with a high turnout even though no other major matters were on the ballot. The integration of the various ethical perspectives in this picture are clear.

A Few Observations and Insights

It is clear that, as important as it is, the Code of Ethics does not provide a ready answer to every ethics challenge that arises. It is equally clear that no manager, no matter how experienced, can anticipate every possible scenario that he or she will face in a given local community. Context counts and so do community dynamics. However, these brief vignettes provide some useful insights.

First, it is important to think about the different lenses—personal, professional, organizational, community, and national—that are important in ethics challenges. Second, it is just as important to recognize that other people, both within and outside the city organization, see the situation through different lenses. Third, there is no set of rules or tenets that is so complete that it can prescribe the best response in any situation. Fourth, professional judgment matters, and all too often discussions of ethics do not ask the question of just what professional judgment means and how it works in dealing with ethical challenges.

Fifth, and finally, there is often not a final resolution for many situations, and the challenge is often how to reconcile the personal, professional, community, and national dimensions of a particular situation, many of which are not within the manager’s control. Although that may not be a satisfying way to address a problem, it can make it easier to live with the ethical situations managers confront every day.

PHILLIP J. COOPER is the Douglas and Candace Morgan Professor of Local Government, Mark O. Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon ( His most recent book is Local Government Administration: Governance in Communities.



1 Aaron Wildavsky, Speaking Truth to Power: The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), p. 13. I recently dedicated a book “to Aaron and to all those public service professionals who daily demonstrate their willingness to “speak truth to power”—even at great cost to themselves and their families and in the most difficult of circumstances.” from Policy Tools in Policy Design (Irvine, CA: Melvin & Leigh Publishers, 2018).

2 Rufus Miles, “The Origin and Meaning of Miles’ Law,” Public Administration Review 38 (Sep/Oct 1978): 399-403.

3 Vaclav Havel, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), p. 4.

4 See e.g., James Svara “Achieving Effective Community Leadership,” in Charldean Newell, ed., The Effective Local Government Manager, 3rd ed., (Washington, D.C.: ICMA, 2004), pp. 33-38.

5 John Rohr, Ethics for Bureaucrats: An Essay on Law and Values (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1978). See also Rohr, To Run a Constitution: The Legitimacy of the Administrative State (Lawrence, KS: Kansas University Press, 1986).

6 See Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, 138 S. Ct. 1945 (2018). See also Walsh v. Enge, 154 F. Supp. 3d 1113 (DOR 2015).

7 A federal district court rejected a later challenge to the new ordinance that allowed exclusion under some circumstances. Walsh v. Enge, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68980 (DOR 2017).

8 Louis Brandeis, Other People’s Money (National Home Library Foundation, 1933), p. 62 (originally published 1914). He first published this as “What Publicity Can Do,” Harper’s Weekly, December 13, 1913, p. 10.



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