City Government Ethics – What’s Wrong With Them and What Can Be Done?

Over the last few years, I have had the pleasure of providing ethics programs for a wide range of city, county, state, and provincial officials as well as their staff members. These folks are often the target, rightly or wrongly, of accusations of every imaginable type of ethics problem. Unfortunately, the widespread findings of confirmed corruption among such officials and their offices make them an ever-more easy target. Within this wide group of officials, however, city officials seems to be accused far more often than the others. (I am, admittedly, not certain whether this is due to an actually higher incidence of ethical problems at the city level or simply because there are a whole lot more city officials than there are county, state, and provincial ones. In either case, though, the number of city officials finding themselves in hot water over ethical issues is persistently staggering.)

Despite the high rate of ethics problems among city government officials and their staff, these are usually hardworking and caring people with a strong commitment to public service. So what could the problem possibly be?

The most frequent explanation I hear is that power corrupts. In this particular case though, I don't buy that, especially where anything other than criminal corruption has occurred. Why not? For starters, far too many of these folks simply don't have all that much power by which to be corrupted. Though a counter-argument could be that power is relative and any government position, by definition, provides some level of 'corruptable' power, I just don't see that happening in most of the cases of which I become aware. In fact, in at least some of these cases, the problem occurs when an official is trying to get a job done for which they have the responsibility but inadequate power and so they 'over-step' in some way to try to get the job done in the absence of having the actual authority to do it in the way in which it is supposed to be done. In the alternative, sometimes they act inappropriately in response to their frustration with the limits of their abilities to get the job done. None of this makes their inappropriate behavior acceptable, obviously, it just means that 'power corrupts' isn't really the issue in nearly as many cases as many folks want to assume.

So what is the problem with city government officials' ethics? In my experience, the problem is usually a whole lot simpler that it might seem. These aren't criminally-prone folks out looking for a way to use their jobs as a way to make a quick buck. (At least, there are no more of them doing that than in any other line of work.) Rather, they are folks under particular scrutiny, with positions of significantly-greater-than-average public trust, and whom are usually given no better training on ethics and values than any of the rest of the world. 

True, in many states, city and county officials are taken through a basic 'always-do-this-and-never-do-that' review of the rules. However, those are typically brief, broad, generic, and without any follow-up. In other words, little guidance – or, at least, little really helpful guidance – is given that can effectively help shape the ethical thinking of new or returning officials or their staff. Instead, most city and county employees are simply told, in essence, "go out there and get a ton done and, oh-by-the-way, remember to always do the right thing ethically", all with the virtual absence of training on what it really means to do the right thing.

Like in any other field or industry, a little bit of well-conceived and well-implemented ethics and values training – coupled with appropriate oversight and coaching/mentoring – can help city officials do a far better job with ethics. Don't just tell them the rules, have them sign off on having received a copy of the ethics code, and leave it at that. Help them learn what the values are on which the rules are based and then show them clearly, carefully, and comprehensively how to focus on those values in their day-to-day decision-making. This isn't a complicated process but it's one that needs to be done in cities and counties of all sizes to help officials do a better job of building and maintaining their professional ethics. Once done, if done well, city and county officials will be able to far more consistently do the right thing ethically and, in turn, both earn and maintain the essential trust we all want to place in them.

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