The “Low Road” of Compliance

The path of compliance, in the words of the poet, means “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one needs to be good.” A largely proscriptive, coercive, punitive, and even threatening route, this approach to ethics is designed to spur obedience to minimum standards and legal prohibitions. It is enforced by controls on the job that ordinarily aim at acceptable levels of risk, not flawless purity. John Rohr  calls this the “low road.” It features “adherence to formal rules” and a negative out- look. Along this road, Rohr argues, “Ethical behavior is reduced to staying out of trouble” and the result is “meticulous attention to trivial questions.” The allure of compliance is both explained and mirrored in the words of a U.S. deputy attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice: “In the minds of many Americans, public service, government officials, politicians, crooks, and criminal activity are inextricably mixed”.

A compliance perspective monopolizes thinking about ethical behavior in many quarters, including the federal government and many states and localities. Federal training materials for ethics officials and employees deals with behavior exclusively in terms of legally enforceable standards and as legalistic problems to be solved (by reference, for example, to the U.S. Code and Code of Federal Regulations) rather than ethical dilemmas to be resolved.

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In managerial terms, compliance translates into oversight and controls. When it comes to ensuring accountability, these are facts of life in the complex, highly struc- tured, and very powerful organizations we label bureaucracy. Nikolai Gogol’s play “The Inspector General” is a suggestive description of a response to compliance in the field. This nineteenth-century Russian drama opens with a governor, analogous to a polit- ical appointee, announcing the imminent arrival of an inspector! Feeling threatened by impending doom, the governor relates his dream of giant, peculiar rats that sniff and sniff at everything and everyone. Any manager who has undergone an audit prob- ably can relate to his dream.

Realistically, public managers are not about to purge compliance from govern- ment operations. Nor should managers want to. Represented by administrative con- trols and legal sanctions, compliance is fundamental to the way the public’s business is conducted. As guardians of political relationships and political goals, controls are accountability implemented. For evidence, look on your desk. Controls are ingrained in budgeting and personnel—traditional managerial functions.

The U.S. system has been preoccupied with accountability from its inception. Probably the single most important travel reimbursement in U.S. history shows that colonial controls were enforced even in revolution, when the founders were turning their backs on authority in “the first general crisis of authority in American history”. Even so, Paul Revere duly submitted his bill for printing and “riding for the Committee of Safety” in 1775. The Massachusetts legislature approved payment “in full discharge of the written account.” But reimbursement was for less than the patriot requested. George Washington’s detailed account of expenses incurred as commander-in-chief  provides more disillusioning historical evidence of using controls to implement accountability.