Public Administrators' Responsibility: More Complex than One Assumes

Nov 6 , 2021
By Halima Abate (MD)

Fulfilling public responsibilities is a stressful and complex execution compounded by conflicts among several roles. By its very nature, the role of a public administrator often requires carrying a fair share of responsibility for the public with the provision of strategic leadership and independent scrutiny. Hence, balancing responsibility both by the organisation’s ethical standards and self-interest are critical.

“Responsibility may well be the most important word in all vocabulary of administration, public, and private,” wrote Frederick Mosher, one of the most important scholars in the field of public administration.

Mosher described two concepts of responsibility: subjective responsibility (personal grounding in moral and ethical responsibility) and objective responsibility (concerns responsibility as described by law). Thus, responsibility is a humble reminder that public organisations and their administrators exist on behalf of the public.

The fact that the public administrator wears these two hats means that their obligation to serve the public interest illuminates the ethical situation and cultivates imaginative reflection on coherent decision-making. Hence, good governance demands bondage to the codes of ethics and legislations derived from law books and implemented by public administrators, according to the assigned organisation's mandated mission.

As public administrators are temporary stewards, exercising the public power and authority should be integrated with long-term strategies that could be prescribed or grounded to the people without compromising justice. Considering the alternative outcomes and contemplating the different scenarios for each action might help the administrator think of any additive issues and forecast the probable consequences deriving from redefined actions. The possible course of action would be advocating for the possible course of action with their deontological approaches (focused on the means) and teleological roles (concerned with the consequence of actions). Finally, showing that public administrators exhibit ethical behaviour would be a plus over the actual behaviour. Perception sometimes matters just as much as the actual policies.

Responsibility is never perfectly achieved unless institutional safeguards designed to make public policy truly responsible represent approximations. The assigned administrators might have taken steps to maintain accountable conduct in public organisations and management, holding subordinates responsible through timely and energetic execution of duty. This is not enough. It also calls for techniques for bounding, directing and informing the discretion of subordinates both formally and informally, which aids them to visualise the advantage of building-up deep-seated culture in the organisation. Creating a climate of change, involving leaders in rewarding or punishing subcultures, and employees’ engagement and empowerment, might affect the implementations of the ethical decision-making approaches.

Taking account of the activities of government within a broader framework of laws and public policies, maintaining accountability in the midst of conflict is always useful in the process of developing integrity, and maintaining responsible behaviour. The three most common conflicts encountered in exercising administrative responsibility are but not limited to conflicts of authority (conflicts caused by two or more authority); role of conflicts (conflicts arises with values associated with particular roles being incompatible or mutually exclusive in a given situation); and conflicts of interest (conflicts between the public role and self-interest or between objective responsibility and the possibility of personal gain or advantage). Pronouncing responsibility might be a healthy reminder of the service obligation and the people's sovereignty in a democracy.

New public administrators are expected to explain actions from a practical perspective (in terms such as cost-effectiveness, efficiency, feasibility, and productivity), and from an ethical perspective according to values and principles (such as equity, equality, freedom, truthfulness, beneficence, human dignity, privacy, and democracy) in defining their responsibility to the public.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 06,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1123]

Halima Abate (MD) is a public health professional with over a decade of experience. She can be reached at

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