• The ethics of resigning public office



    Last of 2 parts
    First word
    I DECIDED to write this two-part series on the ethics of resigning public office, on account of the effect on governance of non–performing executives who cling to their posts long after they have lost effectiveness and public support.

    This column continues my summation of J. Patrick Dobel’s article (“The Ethics of Resigning”), which presents a moral theory of resignation. It surveys the various reasons why public officials leave office, and how they can spare themselves and their families unnecessary grief.

    However office and official are sundered, the emotional toll is heavy. I suspect the toll is always heavier for the official who tenaciously cleaves to his post.

    Moral fit between person and office
    Personal moral capacity, official responsibilities, and effectiveness represent the three moral reference points of integrity in public office.

    The three, call them a tripod, determine the moral “fit” between a person and an office. Individuals triangulate within the tripod to find the right decision whether to stay or resign. When the three mesh and reinforce each other, a moral synergy exists that enables individuals to perform official responsibilities with commitment, competence, energy, and style. The web of reliance is fulfilled; the legal and authorizing demands are satisfied; the institutional and political dimensions support the office.

    Each point of the triad can provide moral reasons to resign office. Each can also produce reasons to stay.

    Personal moral capacity
    The ability to bring critical self-reflection, discipline, energy, focus, and insight to the job depends upon integrity. Integrity links these capacities as it permits persons to embrace their responsibility for actions.

    Personal capacities enable individuals to endure the humdrum, hassles, and the physical and emotional strain of office as well as provide the moral backstop for periods when legal or institutional directives may be vague or in conflict. They are also the capacities that sustain a person’s ability to judge and act upon moral commitments. When these integrity-related capacities erode, it is time to resign.

    Such erosion can occur in various ways. At the most prosaic level, the daily stresses of official life can undercut a person’s physical or emotional health and endurance. This applies to all offices, appointed and elected.

    When US Rep. Morris Udall resigned from the House after a distinguished 30-year career, he cited the effects of cumulative illness that prevented him from meeting the “rigorous demands and duties” of his office.

    Another enlightening example is the case of Gen. George C. Marshall, secretary of state and then defense in the Truman administration (he designed the famous Marshall Plan, which rebuilt a devastated Europe after World War 2; he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work). When he resigned his high post and closed his public service, he cited as his reason “exhaustion” and inability to carry on the task of the office. Marshall recognized the often overlooked but obvious moral point that one must possess the physical and emotional capacity to do justice to an office’s responsibilities.

    Emotional commitment provides the energy to carry the heavy burdens of office. When energy diminishes or burnout occurs, people merely go through the motions.

    The job may get done in a formal, routine sense, but at deeper levels, performance decays. Little things do not get done. Extra time or effort is not expended to ensure that things are right.

    Official responsibilities
    Officials have an obligation to perform the functions of the office. These are warranted by law and process, and can range from clear and exact technical operations to wide ranges of discretion.

    In this environment, officials must be able to prove to their relevant publics and superiors that their actions satisfy the legal and institutional requirements as well as help those who depend on competent execution.

    Two broad classes of reasons to resign arise from the promise to live up to the responsibilities of office. In the first class, individuals fail in the basic competencies required by the position.

    In the second class, they confront demands to participate in actions that violate legal or professional norms or the basic moral conditions of the office.

    Many of the decisions to resign will emerge from the intersection of different promises and from the individuals’ need to sort out their own priorities, especially in regard to their moral capacities and the obligations of the position.

    Persons can fail in their competence responsibilities in any of several ways. First, an official might be the lead in a failed policy or program.

    Second, persons might find that they do not possess the requisite competencies for office.

    Third, personal disgrace or dishonor may undercut the credibility of the persons to uphold the symbolic and legitimacy dimensions of an office.

    The last leg of the moral tripod that supports public integrity is effectiveness.

    Effectiveness overlaps with the responsibilities of office and covers the active political skills that transcend the technical, routine, and even managerial skills required to maintain an institution’s core competence.

    One can exercise all these skills and still end up merely “going through the motions” or “serving time.” To implement a new vision, protect an agency in a turbulent environment, fight off power plays, change priorities, or influence policymaking, a public official needs two other sets of skills. These are: a) the ability to build political support and capital; and b) the ability to gain access and credibility in order to influence decisions.

    People may also morally resign because they are committed to make a difference and believe they could be more effective in another position.

    Finally, effectiveness can be destroyed by attacks from the political environment. Policy failure, misuse of office, even perceived ineffectiveness can all become focal points for media frenzies and political attacks.

    Resignation as offer, threat or lever
    As a final topic, Dr. Dobel discussed how resignation can be employed as an offer, a threat and a lever.

    Resignation is costly not only to the person leaving, but to the people and the organization left behind. When a valued and skilled colleague leaves, implementation or deliberation may be degraded because an important source of talent or insight has been lost. A resignation can be felt as a public repudiation of a policy, and the media may use it as evidence of discord or failure in an office. Consequently, the option to resign creates potential leverage.

    The leverage becomes important in a world of contingent power and moral ambiguity. Many persons who consider resigning are struggling to change or resist actions, and they feel beleaguered. When the reasons flow from a disagreement over policy or involve loss of influence, then individuals can sometimes recoup losses with the artful exercise of power. If individuals could regain influence or effect an actual change, they could stay. In these cases, the threat or offer to resign can free the person and sometimes rebuild the tripod.

    The honest decision to risk resignation means a person has found the defining moment of his or her public integrity.

    Resignation threats, however, work best when:

    a) they are believable, b) the official is respected and needed, c) the public costs to the principal of the resignation would be high, and d) the threat focuses on clear issues.



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