Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Case of the Mangled Data

by Kirk O. Hanson

Fred Jones, program manager in the County Executive's Office, listened intently as a member of the County Board of Supervisors responded to a question from the public during the hearings on the county budget. The data quoted by the board member was accurate but was being completely misrepresented. The data, which was being quoted to demonstrate that the county had gotten costs under control in one specific area, was incomplete. Fred knew that the complete data, which had also been given to the full board, indicated costs had actually risen.
What was his responsibility, Fred wondered, to correct the answer being given by the board member to the public? Fred was not sure whether the misrepresentation by the board member was accidental or deliberate. Fred knew the supervisor had promised the year before to get costs under control and now was under pressure to show progress.
Should Fred speak up publicly in the meeting? Should he pass a note to the board member suggesting that he correct the impression he had given? Should Fred give the correct numbers to another supervisor? To a reporter after the session? What was his responsibility, as a county employee, to make sure the public got the correct information?

Kirk O. Hanson is the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
Dec. 7, 2001


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