• The ethics of resigning public office



    Part 1
    First word
    IN late December last year, I wrote a column on the subject of resignation from public office (“Resigning public office is a moral act,” Manila Times, December 28,2017), which addressed the phenomena then of Paolo Duterte’s sudden resignation as Davao City vicemayor and the proclivity of Filipino public officials to cling to office.

    I continued my research on the subject to seek out the governing principles and ideas that underlie the exercise of resignation in liberal and constitutional government. I reckoned that the subject has been the object of much study by scholars and social scientists.

    In this, I have not been disappointed. There are, indeed, various studies on resignation. After persistent research and communications with research libraries, I was able to get a PDF copy of a famous study on resignation from public office: a lengthy paper entitled “The Ethics of Resigning” written by Dr. J. Patrick Dobel, professor and associate dean at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. Dobel (Ph.D. Princeton) is much recognized for his work on public ethics.

    “The Ethics of Resigning” was first published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1999. The article is regarded as one of the most authoritative on the subject.

    Considering that the resignation issue remains alive and kicking in our public life (public officials cling to office while President Duterte has dismissed members of his government who unwittingly fail to resign before getting fired),I thought it would be useful if I devote my column today and the next one to a summation of the ideas and observations of Dr. Dobel in his article.

    Moral theory of resignation
    In his article, Dr. Dobel presents a moral theory of resignation that accounts for the moral complexity of life in office and can help guide individuals in their decisions. Unlike the accounts that focus upon the obligations either to oppose or leave when individuals disagree on principle, Dobel argues that resignation is a moral resource for individuals of integrity.

    He wrote: “Resigning from office is a critical ethical decision for individuals. The option to resign reinforces integrity, buttresses responsibility, supports accountability, and can provide leverage. The moral reasons to resign flow from three related moral dimensions of integrity. Individuals in office promise to live up to the obligation of the office. This promise presumes that individuals have the capacity to make and keep promises, the competence to do the tasks of office, and the ability to be effective….

    “Getting out or staying in marks a defining moment for a person in public life. Most decisions in office are woven into a fabric of habit, experience, and professional judgments. Only a few decisions threaten the fabric of integrity and can unravel a life or office. At these frayed edges of selfhood where people decide to stay or resign, persons define their integrity within an institution.”

    Triad of moral integrity
    The moral status of holding office can best be conceptualized as a promise by an individual to live up to the obligations of office. This promise presumes three supports for moral obligation in office: a) the moral capacity to make and keep promises; b) the competence to perform duties; and c) effectiveness in actions.

    Dobel’s article explore show each support can generate a range of moral reasons to resign through examples drawn from case studies, biographies, memoirs, and interviews. Individuals have many reasons to leave office and not all are ethically based.

    Moral importance of resigning
    Resigning is morally important for the following reasons:
    First, resignation supports personal integrity. Personal integrity matters because it enables persons to claim life as their own and enables society to allocate responsibility on the assumption that individuals can act with consistency and discipline on behalf of promises. Personal

    integrity involves the capacity to take a reflective stance toward roles and actions, and make sense of how they cohere.

    Second, resigning buttresses moral responsibility. Individuals in public office possess responsibility for their actions, and resigning is a basic moral resource of responsible persons. Although the level of personal responsibility may vary, individuals above the ministerial levels possess some co-responsibility for institutional actions because they materially contribute their competence to the outcomes.

    Third, resignation can help ensure accountability in democratic institutions. The issues of maintaining personal moral capacity, effectiveness, access, and competence apply across the board. Although the range of discretion may vary and the chain of accountability may differ, especially with elected officials, all face the same issues of respecting law and due process and crafting compromises.

    The willingness to resign buttresses the moral and psychological core of integrity and responsibility. If persons become so wedded to office that they will not resign under any circumstances, they risk violating their integrity, the norms of office, and effectiveness.

    Living up to responsibilities
    The moral relationship between a person and an office is best understood as an official’s obligation to live up to the office’s responsibilities.

    The responsibilities include acting with competence, obeying the law, framing actions in light of legal and institutional norms, agreeing to accountability, and respecting due process.

    The obligation requires key assumptions about the individual and his or her relationship to the position. For persons in office, the violation of these assumptions provides very strong reasons to resign.

    The promises made in taking office are complex and cover two broad areas. The first covers the substantive promises presumed by all public officials—to obey the laws and respect due process.

    In addition, they promise good-faith performance of the skills and technical demands. These obviously apply to all executives—career, appointed, and elected.

    Accountability to principals
    The second range of promises involves the pledge to be accountable to principals.

    The principals served are usually elected or appointed executives but may also be career executives. Sometimes these appointments require approval of a legislature or an oversight body. In these cases, the appointed officials have multiple obligations.

    In addition to their legal and technical obligations, officials also promise to serve within the framework of the principal’s policy agenda and to protect the administration’s legitimacy.

    Dr. Dobel’s moral theory of resignation illumines a murky area in the Philippine government service. The last thing Filipino public officials think about is resigning office. Most think of living out their term in office.

    Whether appointed or elected, Filipino officials are either dismissed or voted out of office.

    But these are not their only choice. They can all choose to resign with their integrity intact. (To be continued)



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