The Importance of Ethical Decision Making in Our Response to Emergencies

Personal and professional ethics provide an opportunity for local government managers to step up to the challenge of any disaster and ensure integrity in our response.

By Cheryl A. Hilvert, ICMA midwest regional director | Apr 8, 2021 | BLOG POST

Recently, ICMA and its members celebrated Ethics Awareness Month. This celebration reminds us how the ICMA Code of Ethics is the foundation of a professional local government management career and provided many examples where our personal and professional ethics have guided our day-to-day work and during special and challenging circumstances. Rarely is there a situation where our ethics should guide us more than when our communities are facing a crisis, disaster or, in recent times, a worldwide pandemic.

As local government managers, we are always subject to dealing with the impact of disasters and crises, managing through those situations, providing the best public services possible for our communities, and helping people to recover and get past the situation at hand. During the past year, most of us have seen at least a couple of situations that have tested us, including:

  • The public health emergency of Covid-19.
  • National and environmental disasters, including tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, windstorms, and severe winter weather.
  • Civil protests, racial and religious violence.
  • Economic disruption.

For any of us who have faced a disaster or crisis in our community, we know that we tend to be at our best when responding to crises—people do their jobs, teamwork becomes second nature, and individuals rise to the challenge to do more than they think they can. But while crises and disasters create opportunities for us to excel at our technical tasks like putting out the fire, cleaning up after a storm, issuing condemnation orders for damaged buildings, communicating during times of civil unrest, repairing infrastructure, and even addressing revenue shortfalls, there is another side to disaster management that we all must be prepared for—the ethical side of decision making.

Ethical Leadership Matters

In a recent blog on COVID-19 vaccination outcomes, Martha Perego, ICMA’s director of member services and ethics, reminds us that in all situations—normal operations as well as in crises and disaster situations—ethical leadership matters. She said, “The local government profession operates from a foundational set of values dedicated to serving the best interests of all. That includes a commitment to integrity, fairness, and equity in all aspects of service delivery, even in the most dire of emergencies so that we can merit the trust of those we serve.”

Perego describes four steps that managers can take in any situation to enhance fairness and equality in our community outreach and our services and help to build the public’s confidence in our ability to meet their needs, including:

  1. Lead from the front by being the role model for ethical conduct.
  2. Emphasize values by focusing on shared values between you, your staff, and the community in every aspect of your response.
  3. Adhere to the rules and focus on equality and fairness in your work.
  4. Fix the flaws by reviewing and reviewing again the service and response you provide and learn where you can improve the next time. You will have a next time.

In a recent ICMA Coaching Program webinar, ethics framed presentations of three seasoned local government managers on the topic of “Response to Emergencies that Impact all Citizens: Rights of the Individual v. Health and Welfare of Community.” Presenters shared personal stories of when their ethics helped guide their community’s response and approach to a crisis.

Strategies for Ethical Leadership

Randy Reid, ICMA Southeast Regional Director and former local government manager, shared the story of an international incident where a religious leader, in the aftermath of September 11, threatened to publicly burn a Quaran in Gainesville, Florida. The incident—which spanned a period of two years— agitated the community, created an international outcry that was fueled by the media, and resulted in coordinated governmental involvement at the local, state, and federal levels. Ultimately, the incident culminated in an organized, creative, and ethical response that reflected community values and resulted in civil harmony in the community.

Reid discussed his strategies for being an ethical leader, including:

  • Prepare yourself and others for dealing ethically and safely with emergencies.
  • Recognize that you are always on ethical “active duty” demonstrating a conscience in emergencies.
  • Understand that if you walk past something wrong and do nothing to correct it, your behavior condones it.
  • Avoid creating ethical dilemmas for others: set parameters for an agile response.
  • State clearly that how someone achieves results matters as much as the result.
  • Explain why emergency decisions are made.
  • Show you are willing to document, and accept accountability, for decisions.
  • Set the tone and model the conduct you want to see in others.
  • Have the courage to confront and mitigate causal factors in post-event recovery.

Reid also reminds us that there are ethical decisions that we must make at each stage of disaster preparation and response. He suggests that we look for opportunities to expand our “technical approach” to crises and incorporate and embed ethics in every stage of planning, including pre-event planning and training, emergency operations/decisions during the event, post-event in assessing damage and resource allocation and in mitigation efforts to recover, redevelop, and prevent/minimize instances in the future.

Community Relationships

Opal Mauldin-Jones, city manager of Lancaster, Texas, shared her stories of law enforcement encounters—including both a taser and shooting—which easily could have resulted in community unrest and protest. She discussed the importance of quality relationships, both internally within the city and externally with the community, emphasizing that relationships with civic groups, homeowners’ associations, nonprofits, and the faith-based community can do much to contribute to positive recovery from any crisis.

She also discussed the importance of openness and transparency at all times, including the importance of apolitical leadership, quality communications and city policies that were accessible and understood by the public, suggesting that engaging the public in your work and regularly receiving feedback on everything from development projects to review of police policies is important work for any manager.

Mauldin-Jones also reminds us that as local government managers, we must always strive to find our “True North,” live our personal and professional values, always adhere to ethical decision making, and remember that our community is always our best partner in any disaster or crisis.

Building Trust

Fran Robustelli, interim city manager, San Leandro, California—no stranger to crises herself—shared insights about the importance of organizational culture in any crisis.   She suggests that emergencies can often uncover gaps in organizational culture. While discussing an incident where a school employee was accused of a wrongful act against a child, she emphasized that any situation could add to concerns about the trustworthiness of a local government organization and its employees.

I order to build trust, Robustelli suggests that managers:

  • Take decisive action, as the cost of letting an ethical issue fester because it is too difficult or intangible to resolve can lead to horrible results.
  • Understand the importance of communication, both internally to the organization and externally to the public, and develop effective messaging strategies, recognizing that at times, we must weigh the protection of our employees and their privacy and wellbeing with the demand for information from the public.
  • Recognize that your actions can build or break down organizational trust, so consider a transparent approach rather than being defensive and recognize that words alone matter, and the order of words matter even more.
  • Make after-action reviews a regular part of your work. These reviews can help to determine if the crisis was avoidable and provide an opportunity to find improvement.

As Randy, Opal, and Fran remind us, our personal and professional ethics provide an opportunity for us to step up to the challenge of any disaster—regardless of type or duration—and ensure integrity in our response. And in doing so, Martha Perego reminds us that, “We all share the tendency to overestimate our character.” To avoid that tendency, always employ ethical decision making. And, toward that end, our ICMA Code of Ethics is always a great place to start!

Check out the archived 90-minute webinar on Response to Emergencies that Impact all Citizens: Rights of the Individual v. Health and Welfare of the Community is available along with other coaching webinars produced by ICMA.

Learn more about ICMA’s Coaching Program.



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