Countering Objections

Wilson also noted in a less frequently cited quote, “We go on criticizing when we ought to be creating”. All new ideas ignite derivative problems, and an ethics agenda is no exception. For instance, West Virginia, “trying to recover both morally and financially from the loss of over $200 million through the mismanagement of state investment funds”, pronounced itself the thirty- sixth state to create an independent ethics commission. The speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates and cosponsor of the state’s 1989 Ethics Act reviewed objections to the legislation. His arguments are relevant to objections to administrative ventures.

“You can’t legislate morality” was a common refrain for those who questioned the need for comprehensive ethics legislation. The bureaucracy of ethics regulations . . . seemed to outweigh any benefits. To some, an ethics law was merely window dressing, unlikely to change how real public officials act except to complicate being one. Inertia, rather than opposition, presented the greatest difficulty.

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There are five major objections to agency action: (1) it substitutes ritual for responsibility; (2) ethical behavior is seen as an exception, not the rule; (3) red tape is generated; (4) some people object to behavior modification, and (5) there is the double-edged threat of vigilante ethics. Because we can lay the objections aside only by meeting them, let us take each one in turn.

Ritual Substituted for Responsibility The first objection views ritualistic compliance as a poor but likely proxy for ethics. It is valid as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Institutional mechanisms do endanger the broader goal by threatening to substitute formalistic compliance for ethical responsibility. But must they? Can we accommodate new concerns in administrative routines without trivializing fundamental principles? The answer is, “Of course.” That is what responsive, innovative public management is all about.

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