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Why ethics should be the foundation of public policy

12 October 2022

News and media


Image of ANZSOG's Public Leadership Masterclass presenter, Vafe Ghazavi

Most debates about public policy and management focus on efficiency, cost-benefit analysis or balancing the demands of key stakeholders, and questions of ethics and values are often treated as an afterthought. 

Political philosopher Dr Vafa Ghazavi says that a focus on ethics, and discussion of the values that underlie policymaking and public sector leadership, can open up avenues for short-term and long-term progress.  

Dr Ghazavi, a Carr Centre Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and Executive Director for Research and Policy at the James Martin Institute of Public Policy, will present the upcoming Ethical leadership in the 21st century online masterclass, part of ANZSOG’s new Public Leadership Masterclass series, which will give participants an introduction to ethical thinking and how to build it into their own work. 

He says that all policy questions involve values in some form. 

“Even in a simple example such as whether to build a park or a library there are values and ethical questions all the way down. What are we aiming for and how are we measuring it? is it a material or monetary benefit, or health or some other form of wellbeing and human flourishing? Are we seeking to promote an ideal of community or social cohesion? Who benefits from the investment and in what ways? Who gets to be involved in the decision-making process and where does power and influence lie in that? 

“These are all ethical questions. And they only get harder when we consider more complex policy dilemmas and structural challenges such as the shape of the economy or the regulation of new technologies. 

“If we approach ethics in a systematic way there are very large benefits for policymaking. Increased ethical capacity helps us to understand complex social dynamics more clearly, including their causes and who’s affected, and to better describe particular phenomena. It enables us to identify what values are at stake in a given policy domain, including where these might be in tension.”   

“A thorough approach to ethics delivers more insight and more foresight in policymaking. Greater ethical capacity can help open up our policy imagination.” 

Dr Ghazavi’s masterclass will focus on practical methods to integrate values and ethics in policy development and will consider two policy debates to explore how ethical approaches can be used in practice. Firstly, around the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) in the work of government, and secondly how to create a fair transition to a low-emissions economy. 

He said that with AI and other forms of automated decision-making being rapidly adopted by governments as well as firms, often without sufficient attention to their ethical implications, the practices and frameworks developed in the next few years could profoundly shape the relationship between citizens and governments.  

“These technologies are already extremely powerful. The question of their ethical design and development, as well as democratic control over their deployment, is becoming increasingly relevant in many aspects of how we live. 

“AI, like other technologies, can lock in particular values and have long-lasting effects.  

“Technology does not exist in a social or moral vacuum. For example, when it comes to the risks associated with using automated decision-making in the welfare system, we must account for how an algorithm interacts with vulnerable people, what sort of transparency and accountability mechanisms are in place, and how specific harms can be eliminated or managed.    

“When it comes to something like facial recognition technology, there are potential public benefits, but we also need to appreciate the major ethical risks, particularly around privacy and discriminatory effects based on gender, race, or disability. 

“To ensure AI is developed and used responsibly, we need to match technological innovation with regulatory, policy, social and moral innovation. In that light, it’s worth thinking about initiatives like the Biden administration’s new Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights to help guide the design, development, and deployment of AI.”  

He said that the issue of the transition to net-zero emissions and away from fossil fuels was one that was broadly known, but the ethical dimensions were only now starting to gain prominence in the public debate. 

“The transition away from fossil fuels will affect different groups of people in different ways. By thinking about this in a morally rigorous way, we can better develop robust strategies which anticipate these distributional effects and create more authentic and cooperative partnerships with affected communities and citizens. 

“That kind of commitment, rooted in common values, generates pathways for policy reform. For instance, it can sharpen our focus on place-based economic strategies to create good jobs, or innovations that mobilise capital for creating and growing productive businesses.” 

Building ethical capacity in organisations

Dr Ghazavi says that there are a range of different strategies that can be used by organisations and individuals that want to incorporate ethical thinking more deeply into their work. 

“Once we recognise the importance of ethics, we can then think about specific strategies on multiple levels. First, empowering individuals to exercise the critical moral agency and thinking necessary to do their roles well. Second, at the organisational level, designing decision-making processes and cultivating workplace cultures so that core ethical objectives are baked in. Third, learning continually from experience. As with other aspects of policymaking and organisational performance, moral and ethical outcomes require constant work, iteration, and innovation.  

“Behavioural design, based on evidence of what works, can also be useful in certain areas such as promoting gender equity or integrity in an organisation, for example by reducing bias in recruitment.” 

He said democratic governments have a vital role in guiding and protecting common good outcomes. At the same time, increased public-private collaboration was necessary to addressing some of society’s biggest challenges.  

“With hard policy challenges, from modern slavery in global supply chains to the integrity of financial markets, legislation and regulation can provide a framework for responding, but market players must see themselves as part of supplying solutions too, so that problems don’t simply mutate and evolve around government action.   

“We need to promote a joint problem-solving mindset across sectors and the citizenry, underpinned by a shared sense of the common good. 

“Government continues to have a special responsibility to promote and sustain this sense of the common good, which is distinct from the amalgamation of sectional interests.” 

He says that the writings of the Athenian philosophers Aristotle and Plato remain relevant to these discussions, and will form part of the masterclass, because they explore what it means to be a citizen and how to nurture and cultivate notions of civic virtue. 

“It is too easy to become cynical about this sort of thing. But as citizens we have obligations to promote an ethos that reflects ideals of our common life such as human equality, justice, fraternity, and open deliberation. As public servants, this includes striving to keep one’s team or department on track morally, focused on its public purpose, whether that’s strengthening public goods, delivering services for citizens, protecting the environment, helping citizens and communities to flourish, and so on. 

“Raising our ethical capacity ultimately involves being able to see ourselves as part of projects that are bigger than ourselves: to make our country better, to make our state or city better, to make our neighbourhood better, to make our government and democracy better, to make the world better. This requires constant reflection and effort, to be sure, but it’s within the reach of each of us, given our distinctive roles and circumstances.”