Resource Development Associates

A Framework for Ethical Decision-Making amid Limited Public Resources

By Diana Dahl

Government agencies must consistently manage limited resources and competing stakeholder priorities. Given the high levels of need and the reliance that so many have on public services, managing resources can often require tough decisions. How do public systems make these decisions ethically without exacerbating needs among certain populations? Three main considerations that government agencies should take into account when making difficult resourcing decisions are Equity, Effectiveness, and Feasibility.

Equity and equality are often used interchangeably, but they mean very different things. Equality means treating everyone the same, while equity means providing people with what they need to be successful. Equality aligns with American values of justice and fairness, but it ignores the fact that not everyone is at the same starting point. Equity attempts to level the playing field by offering more support to the needy and less support to the privileged. Because public service systems are much more widely utilized by vulnerable citizens, ensuring equity in service provision is vital.

Effectiveness speaks to the likelihood that an initiative will achieve its intended goals and objectives. Because this requires projection into the future, this can be difficult to measure. However, there are indicators that can help. For example, we can look at whether comparable initiatives been effective. If so, why were they successful? Why did other efforts prove ineffective? These types of questions, and the overall practice of utilizing questioning in decision-making, can provide useful insight for those tasked with making decisions.

Feasibility speaks to the reality of the situation. A program or service design might be the best thing since sliced bread, but if the financial and human resources are not adequate, even the best ideas will struggle to be successful. Considering reasonable compromises can assist in making programs and services feasible. Thinking through the true reality of possibility when it comes to public service decisions is a crucial act of responsibility from public system leadership.

Due to limited public resources and diverse stakeholder priorities, government agencies must encourage responsible compromise through ethical decision-making practices. Regarding the allocation and utilization of public funding for programs and services, government agencies can promote ethical decisions by ensuring that their suggested initiatives are equitable, effective, and feasible.

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