Faced with painful choices about who will suffer most from looming budget cuts, Alexandria officials have taken the unusual step of paying a professional ethicist to help them grapple with the moral issues involved.It's hard to conceive of a government bureaucrat taking the necessary steps to formulate an ethical approach to reducing costs, staff and open positions. How do you maintain your ethics while acknowledging that someone who can least afford to be "downsized" is actually the only person who should be let go because of their skill set or the future needs of the department?
Just a few of the vexing decisions his advice helped Alexandria policymakers confront in recent weeks: They took apartments being built for the mentally ill and temporarily turned them into housing for the disabled. They cut a parenting counselor for jailed minors with kids but preserved aid for belligerent preschoolers. They scaled back drug prevention but kept the methadone pills available to ease the cravings of withdrawal.
"It is very uncomfortable to admit you're going to have to say no. It's very uncomfortable to make decisions that, quite frankly, are going to make some people's lives go worse," said Michael A. Gillette, an ethicist who helped mental health officials in Alexandria write guidelines for prioritizing assistance when there's not enough money to go around. At the urging of top city officials, Gillette also pushed more than 100 other senior and mid-level managers to wrestle with the ethics of shrinking government.
The government has been great about hiring veterans and the disabled, and no reasonable person could oppose that policy--those who defend us and those with great need, I have no quarrel moving them to the front of any line. Well, what if you have a perfectly healthy, single, well-educated person in your department who has all of the technical skills necessary for the future of your agency? Do you keep that person and let a disabled veteran with a family who is older or has fewer skill sets? How do you wrestle with that?
The city of Alexandria went to an ethicist. What a burden that must be for them. Many, many good people are faced with awful, no-win choices ahead.