Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by Dennis Grube

In the final days of an extraordinary campaign, a public official inserted himself into the very heart of the 2016 US presidential election.  I’m referring to FBI Director James Comey and his decision to reveal the re-opening of his investigation into the emails of Hillary Clinton.

My question is a simple one:  What would you have done?

If he had said nothing, and it later emerged that the emails showed evidence of wrongdoing, Comey would have been accused of supressing information that voters had a right to know before the election.  By saying something, he was accused of having released information likely to damage public perceptions of Hillary Clinton in the midst of an election campaign.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

What’s the lesson for us as students and practitioners of public policy?  It’s a reminder that public policy is not a value-free space, where objective policy analysts create and cleave to a higher form of knowledge that is unstained by the darker world of politics.  Non-elected public officials face challenging ethical decisions in a real-world environment in which politics cannot simply be treated as an annoying variable to be modelled out of the way.

In their award winning 2006 article ‘In Search of Prudence’ John Kane and Haig Patapan suggest that public administrators should cultivate a sense of ‘prudent’ judgement.  Prudence is defined as ‘practical wisdom’ – an Aristotelian marriage between philosophical understanding and contemporary reality that guides decision-makers through the ethical minefields of public life.

There are many legitimate grounds for both attacking and defending Comey’s decision to go public with his renewed investigations into Clinton’s emails, and his equally abrupt decision on the eve of the election to clear her of wrongdoing.

In a situation where there is no clear right or wrong answer, what do you think was the ‘prudent’ thing to do?

Dr Dennis Grube is Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Cambridge and a faculty member of the MPhil in Public Policy (MPP). His bio is available here.

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