Taking the 'High Road'

Edmund C. Stazyk

Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration and Policy, housed within the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy

Public administration scholars and practitioners have long grappled with a seemingly simple question: how much autonomy and discretion should public administrators be granted in their jobs? In the United States (U.S.), efforts to answer this question trace back at least to Friedrich Finer’s debate (Friedrich, 1940; Finer, 1941) about the appropriate scope of accountability and discretion for public administrators. Finer felt public administrators are prone to corruption and unlikely to possess an accurate, unbiased sense of the common good. Therefore, a strong political body capable of controlling the bureaucracy is necessary to ensure democratic accountability. Conversely, Friedrich believed bureaucrats possess a high degree of technical expertise that leaves them better situated than politicians to make complex administrative decisions. Further, bureaucrats often self-regulate their behavior when making decisions through, for example, the application professional standards.

This same debate still rages today in the U.S. and elsewhere. Some recent scandals coming out of the U.S. support this assertion. Three notable examples include 1) the U.S. General Service Administration’s misuse of federal dollars to host lavish conferences and provide workers hefty bonuses, 2) the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative political groups for greater administrative scrutiny, and 3) the recent financial downturn, which was blamed on the greed and avarice of Wall Street and certain private firms. The first and second cases inspired calls from the public, media, and politicians to rein in bureaucrats’ discretion. In the third case, however, the argument has been quite different with President Obama arguing the financial collapse occurred partly because regulators lacked the degree of discretion and autonomy necessary to check Wall Street, “big banks,” and runaway corporate interests. Consequently, Obama has been working over the past several years to strengthen laws and provide regulators the leeway necessary to prevent another recession.

Clearly, determining the appropriate degree of discretion and autonomy of public administrators remains a pressing problem for public organizations and civil society. Underpinning this question, however, is a deeper issue that has received less attention from scholars and practitioners: What factors shape employees’ understanding of their roles, responsibilities, and obligations within their organization and to civil society? Ethics scholarship offers one answer to this question.

Ethicists have certainly considered the relationship between public administrators’ understanding of their ethical obligations and their subsequent actions and behavior. However, relative to other topics in public administration and management, ethics research receives little attention from scholars and practitioners. Also, ethics scholarship varies significantly in approach and prescriptions. In the U.S., ethics research and subsequent practical applications have typically mirrored Friedrich and Finer’s original argument. Akin to Finer, some have argued ethical behavior can only be assured through compliance with strict ethics codes mandated by and enforced through strict legal mechanisms. Following this logic, a number of state and local governments have created “ethics commissions” tasked with ensuring compliance with ethics laws. Others have suggested, similar to Friedrich, that we can only ensure public administrators will act ethically and make decisions that comport with the broader public interest if we foster and trust in public employees’ sense of right and wrong as well as their understanding of the common good and their individual responsibilities and duty as civil servants. So pervasive are these arguments in U.S. scholarship that they are frequently referred to as low road (compliance-based) and high road (one’s internal moral compass) ethics (concepts adapted from Rohr, 1978).

Neither low nor high road ethics is inherently superior and, at times, low and high road approaches may lead to similar outcomes or conclusions. Further, both approaches may foster ethical or unethical behavior. For example, by primarily emphasizing compliance with law, the low road approach may lead to blind or inappropriate adherence to rules. Conversely, overreliance on the high road approach may lead to instances when public employees incorrectly presume others share their views and preferences. What matters most is low and high road ethics lead to quite different conclusions about morality in the public sphere. The former assumes democratic societies require checks and safeguards against bureaucrats; the latter assumes most bureaucrats know and will do what is “right.”

We now have 25 years of research about public service motivation (PSM) that generally supports the notion that public employees frequently try to do the right thing. PSM presumes most public employees self-select into public sector employment because they “desire to do good for others and shape the well-being of society” (Perry and Hondeghem 2008, p. 3). In other words, the public sector and public sector employment tends to encompass a core set of public values—so the theory goes—that are attractive to certain individuals, spur them to pursue public sector employment, and often translate into high levels of employee motivation. Higher levels of motivation are only likely to occur, however, when employees believe they “fit” with an organization, meaning employees must believe an organization actually pursues outcomes they value and see as comporting with the public interest.

Relatively few studies have examined whether PSM is related to ethical behavior or more specifically how PSM might affect the actions, behaviors, and decisions of public employees when confronted with ethical dilemmas. To begin addressing this shortcoming, Randall Davis (Southern Illinois University) and I recently published a paper in the journal Public Administration, “Taking the ‘High Road’: Does Public Service Motivation Alter Ethical Decision Making Processes?” We draw on a large sample of senior managers in U.S. local governments to examine two questions: 1) Do employees who believe their departments attach a great deal of importance to various public values also report higher levels of PSM, and 2) in such cases, do public employees confronting ethical dilemmas express a preference for making decisions that comport with a high road approach to ethics. We also examined whether differences existed across whites and minorities, men and women, and employees with varying levels of formal academic training and organizational tenure.

Several interesting findings emerged from our study. Chief among these: Those employees with less formal education were more likely to express a preference for high road decision-making when confronting ethical dilemmas; conversely, employees with more formal education were just as likely to favor low and high road approaches. The difference between senior managers with varying levels of education is thought-provoking for two reasons. First, following PSM scholarship through to its logical conclusion, we would have anticipated that high road approaches to decision-making would be at least as important—if not more so—to highly-educated senior managers. Instead, our results suggest highly-educated senior managers are just as likely to draw on low and high road approaches to decision-making when confronting ethical dilemmas. Second, that less-educated senior managers favor high road decision-making approaches and that they differ from highly-educated senior managers suggests education itself plays an important role in the development and behavior of public administrators.

Admittedly, we are unable to determine whether more or less formal education translates into better [ethical] outcomes for individual citizens or society. However, most scholars and practitioners seem to agree that formal education is important to the success of public organizations and design and implementation of public policy (see, for example, Mosher, 1982). If true, our results seem to suggest highly-educated senior managers often view organizational problems through a fusion of high and low road approaches (for a discussion, see Lewis and Gilman, 2005). If we further assume a fusion approach is preferable to a single (high or low road) approach, this suggests the relationship between PSM, public values, and ethics is more complicated than traditionally presumed. PSM in practice is as much about compliance with formal legal standards as it is about fulfilling an internally based, individually derived morality. To the extent that highly-educated senior managers value low and high road approaches, we have little reason to worry. If, however, less-educated senior managers fail to approach ethical dilemmas using a fusion approach, there may be cause to worry about whether employees with high PSM exercise their discretion and autonomy in ways that actually contradict the public interest. The good news is tools exist that can alleviate this problem: simply provide additional educational opportunities to workers—especially opportunities that incorporate ethics training.

The research discussed here is a first step and all of the normal caveats apply. However, we believe our findings begin to shed light on a set of enduring questions and challenges. How much discretion and autonomy should administrators have? What factors shape public employees’ understanding of their responsibilities and obligations as civil servants? What is the nature of the relationship between the exercise of administrative discretion and the ethical behavior of public employees? To make headway on these questions—questions that have plagued democratic societies for ages—we require further, more nuanced consideration from scholars and practitioners.



  • Finer, H. (1941). Administrative responsibility in democratic government. Public Administration Review, 1, 335-350.
  • Friedrich, C. J., (1940). Public policy and the nature of administrative responsibility. In C. J. Friedrich & E. S. Mason (Eds.), Public policy (pp 3-24). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Lewis, C. W., & Gilman, S. C. (2005). The ethics challenge in public service. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Mosher, F. C. (1982). Democracy and the public service. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Perry, J. L., & Hondeghem, A. (2008). Motivation in public management: The call of public service. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Rohr, J. A. (1978). Ethics for bureaucrats: An essay on law and values. New York, NY: Marcel Dekker.
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