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Book Review

The Ethics of Public Administration: The Challenges of Global Governance

October 27, 2011 - Alan Bulley

The Ethics of Public Administration: The Challenges of Global Governance

The Ethics of Public Administration: The Challenges of Global Governance
Sara R. Jordan and Phillip W. Gray

REVIEW BY Alan Bulley

The Ethics of Public Administration: The Challenges of Global Governance
by Alan Bulley

Students at the Canadian university where I did my Master's in Public Administration had two options for completing their degree: straight coursework or a coursework-plus-thesis option. Thinking that a thesis might give me a chance to explore the impact of religion on the theory and practice of public administration in Canada, I approached the faculty advisor with the idea. What if new Canadians didn't just bring interesting food and clothes with them—what if they brought their religions and philosophies with them, too? What might be the implications for governments serving citizens with diverse ideas about authority and public life?

What a mistake. In a very few words I was told that religious ideas had nothing at all to do with public administration—nor should they! I got the message and dropped the thesis idea. I already had a busy full-time job and wanted to finish the degree in a reasonable time, after all.

Thankfully, Sara Jordan and Philip Gray have a broader view of studying and teaching public administration. In an increasingly globalized world, they suggest, it is impossible for public servants to ignore the influences of philosophy, faith, and history in their work. Their volume, The Ethics of Public Administration: The Challenges of Global Governance, is aimed at those who want to think more deeply about what different cultures and traditions bring to the civil service workplace.

In Part I, the authors outline "five E's" of contemporary public administrative orthodoxy—efficiency, economy, efficacy, expertise, and equality—that are derived from a global survey of public administration literature. Creating such a universal list is problematic, a fact that Jordan and Gray duly acknowledge and discuss, but it nevertheless serves as a grid for examining the wide range of ethical systems within which public servants work around the world.

Part II contains the lion's share of the book and provides brief discussions of "Ethical Traditions for Public Administration" from the East, the West, and points in between. The focus, naturally enough, is on drawing out implications of each tradition in light of the "five E's." For more familiar traditions, the 12 chapters offer the chance to review one's understanding. For the less familiar, there is a real opportunity for readers to learn something new about the values one's coworkers or clients may hold. Each chapter ends with a helpful list of books for further reading (although I was surprised at the age of quite a few suggested titles).

In Part III the authors offer a short concluding chapter that includes a "Brief Note on Frustration": an acknowledgement that readers may have difficulty integrating all the information presented in the book and may experience "intercultural frustration" (345-346). Jordan and Gray also identify a number of themes they see arising from their work, including the importance of both religion and history in shaping the ethical worlds of public administrators and citizens; the relative rarity across cultures of the idea of equality of persons; and a warning about how poorly the imposition of Western administrative standards works in cross-cultural settings (the U.N.'s "International Code of Conduct for Public Officials" serves as Exhibit A for this last point).

A book this ambitious cannot help but have its limitations, of course. In many cases the grid is an aid to discussion, while in others the authors have to admit that some "E's" are not applicable. In their discussion of theJudaic tradition, for example, Jordan and Gray are compelled to note that "there is little specific commentary on the ethical value of efficacy, efficiency, and/or economy" (173). In other words, three of the "five E's" in their schema simply don't work. And, however useful, a grid like this can't help but distort reality: no Buddhist, Christian, or Marxist-Leninist ever espoused—or acted consistently with—the abstracted traditions described in the book. Even civil servants are a little more unpredictable than that!

Similarly challenging are the difficulties inherent in presenting a dozen ethical traditions as monoliths. Few public administrations now have workforces drawn from a single tradition. And few public servants have been influenced by just one strain of culture or thought.

The book's true value is as a broad survey and I expect it will most likely find a place in the classroom rather than on the desks of busy civil servants. As a survey, though, it can only whet the appetite for deeper thinking about cross-cultural interactions in specific administrative and political settings.

Jordan and Gray's ultimate wish is to augment "the knowledge bank necessary for realizing consensus-based, mutually-meaningful cosmopolitan governance" (351). I suspect that's flirting with utopianism, but if the book encourages students of administration to think about ethical presuppositions—their own, as well as those of others—before they get to the multicultural workplace, then it's worth consulting. Once implanted in the bureaucracy, there is rarely time or encouragement to think about the "givenness" of reigning orthodoxies—ethical or otherwise.

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  1. October 2011: Going Local
    CPIP - Going Local

    Going local is the sort of Millennial mantra that gets play on both sides of the partisan playground. For conservatives, going local is about devolution, federalism, small government, and individual responsibility. For liberals, going local is a political act of opposition to faceless corporations and bureaucracies, a cultivation of authenticity and rootedness in a society of simulacra and simulation.

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