University at Albany

Choices Big and Small:
The Ethics of Discretion in Public Service

A commentary by Jeffrey D. Straussman, PhD

Several think tanks and international non-governmental organizations such as Transparency International measure corruption on an annual basis. Countries at the top of the list (least corrupt) include Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, and Singapore. Some of the most corrupt in the world according to Transparency International are Somalia and Afghanistan. Transparency International does not measure corruption of subnational governments, but if it did one wonders if New York State would be closer to Denmark or Somalia. I’ll let the reader choose.

Since I have traveled to many different countries over the years, I have seen or heard about various kinds of petty corruption — the policeman in Moscow who pulled over drivers for bogus driving infractions and then demanded payments in lieu of a traffic ticket, or doctors in Budapest who received “gifts” as gratitude for treatment that they should have provided without the gifts. While I was going through passport in Cambodia, a government official liked my Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy pen and declared, “Gift for me” and took it without my offering it to him. The funniest incident was the suggestion from a Hungarian colleague that I put a large salami on the top of packages that I was bringing to a relative in Romania so that when my rental car was inspected at the border the Romanian border guard would know that the salami was for him. He would take it and wave me on without further incident. (I did not follow my colleague’s advice.)

Maybe you do not have to bribe a Canadian border official with a salami when you are driving to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, but government employees in their daily work routines often confront ethical choices. Think about the times you were stopped by a police officer for speeding and were given a verbal warning but no ticket. Think about a supervisor who decides that her subordinates need some “down time” and does not enforce punctuality. International students who are in an American university for the first time sometimes do not understand why a professor refuses a small gift that is not meant to be a bribe but rather a small token of respect and appreciation. Should the professor take the gift or not?

Sometimes the ethics of discretion can be the difference between life and death. After the collapse of East Germany, some East German border guards were prosecuted for shooting East Germans who tried to escape to the west. Their defense was that they were only following orders and had no choice. Recently, Israel unveiled Adolf Eichmann’s pardon plea that he hand wrote to then Israeli President Yitzak Ben-Zvi claiming that the death sentence imposed on him was unjust because, in his words, “I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty.” Eichmann claimed that he had no discretion despite historical evidence to the contrary. Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1940, used his discretion differently. He signed dubious transit visas for Jewish refugees so that they could leave Lithuania and thereby escape the coming Holocaust. Sugihara continued to grant these bogus transit visas even when his superiors in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo ordered him to stop doing so. Sugihara exercised discretion at great personal and professional cost to himself.

Only a few of us will ever face an ethical challenge like the one faced by Chiune Sugihara. Think of my examples as a continuum. At one end is the police officer who stopped you for speeding and had a decision to make, whether to give you a ticket or not. At the other end are Eichmann and Sugihara. If you are a public servant who exercises discretion — almost everyone does at some point — you will be confronted with ethical choices. Governments may enact laws and regulations to posit what you may or may not do in a myriad of situations. But no amount of legislation will eliminate the discretion the police officer has when she stops you for speeding.

Professor Straussman, a fellow in the National Academy of Public Administration, has published widely in the areas of public finance and budgeting, and administrative reform in transitional countries. He is the author of three books: The Limits of Technocratic Politics, Public Management Strategies: Guidelines for Managerial Effectiveness; and Public Administration, 2nd Edition.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 Rockefeller College News Magazine.