The Reservation Rush from Judgement

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Tractor and fields of I-94, North Dakota, USA.

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Over the last few years, we have asked people from reservations in the Great Plains thousands of questions on ethics. Most have been multiple choice questions like this:

Unqualified tribal workers who receive jobs because they have a relative in power:
A. Reduce unemployment on the reservation since they now have jobs
B. Hurt the reservation economy since they do work to bring in more money and jobs
C. Don't have any effect on the economy
D. Someone would have had the job one way or the other so it makes no difference

We've also asked several hundred questions related to case studies. In these, we give an example, often, as I said yesterday, one that I personally thought was of pretty obviously unethical behavior. For example:

Sam is a recently elected member of the tribal council. It is near the end of the fiscal year and there is $12,000 left in his travel budget. Sam attends the Tribal Economic Summit meeting in Albuquerque, at a cost of $6,200 in hotel room, airfare, conference fee and meals for himself and $1,200 in airfare and meals for his wife. Since they share a room, there is no extra cost for her room and since she doesn't attend the summit, there is no fee. At the end of the year, Sam has $3,600 left in his travel budget.  If Sam was required to attend the meetings as chair of the Tribal Economic Development committee and attended every session, was there any ethical violation?

A. Yes, he spent $1,200 in tribal funds on his wife who did not need to be there.
B.No, he was travelling on tribal business, accomplished the business purpose and came in under budget for travel for the year.
C. Maybe, if the tribe had a written policy against using travel funds for family members, then it would be an ethical violation.

It surprised me that 21% - one out of every five people, saw nothing wrong with using tribal funds to take your family on a vacation. Another 10% said it was only wrong if there was a written policy against it.

On similar questions, where we gave "Not Sure" as an option, people selected that by a 2:1 margin.

 Referring back to the example from yesterday --- in this case study one of the board members was in jail for assault, school records had been falsified and attendance problems and drug abuse overlooked for students who were good athletes. The one board member who disagreed,Alan, was mocked and threatened by the other members. When Phyllis, a board member who had been off the reservation for medical reasons returned she told Alan she didn't think they were doing anything wrong, they were just trying to use sports to bring some success to the reservation.

When we asked 36 people on one reservation if they agreed with Phyllis, less than one-fourth of them (eight people) said, "No".

We thought, that can't possibly be right. So, we went to another reservation and asked another 45 people. Same results, only 11 out of 45 people, again, less than one-fourth, said they disagreed.

Most people said they were not sure.

Even when people disagreed with "Phyllis" they weren't necessarily willing to go against the board. One of the people who disagreed added, "But I would go along with the majority of the board." -- so if the majority of the board voted it was okay to change students' test scores, or waive drug tests for successful athletes, he would agree.

Others asked for more information. What was Phyllis's motive in saying what she did? What was the written policy?

What we saw, time and time again, is that people just about bent over backwards to AVOID making a judgement. When asked, "What is your opinion about what the people in this scenario have done?"  Over and over, the answer was "I don't know."

We'll be discussing this in North Dakota next week and also at the CANAR mid-year conference in Green Bay. Dr. Longie has his own ideas why this is so, but we'll be hoping to get some feedback from the audience as well.

 I'm truly hoping they don't tell us they have no opinion!

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