Want Better Government Ethics? Then Pay Less Attention To Them!

Several readers of my monthly Municipal Ethics Tips and Trends newsletter suggested that part of this month's edition might have broader implications than just to local governments. Could well be. With that hope, here is a slightly adapted version:

Improve government ethics by paying less attention to them? Really? Well, kinda, yeah.
As I work more and more with government officials and employees, I have seen an unfortunate and
terribly destructive trend in how government ethics are defined. That
trend is to see them as strictly involving a very narrow
band of legal mandates including such things as conflict of interest,
recusal, undue influence, etc. Each of these is critically important, of
course, and every official and employee needs to know, with clarity,
what the rules are regarding them. However, this short list of mandates,
however important, is really wildly insufficient if the goal is to help
government officials and employees prevent the more common
ethical and legal risks actually seen on the job.
What else needs to be trained on?
It's really the same list as is needed in every other type of business
setting. A good 'starter list' includes training on hostile work
environment issues, non-discrimination issues, the basics of fraud
detection in the workplace, do's and don'ts of confronting others on
ethics concerns, do's and don'ts regarding consulting on ethics
concerns, and training on how officials and employees can think better
on their feet when it comes to both recognizing and responding to the broadest possible range of potential ethics
issues on the job. In my experience, only the first two of these areas are
routinely covered in 'government ethics training' – and then usually only in a cursory way – and yet problems in the entire range of these
areas collectively account for far more problems than do the areas more typically covered in government ethics training.

Whose job is it to assure that this broader
approach to ethics training is put into place?  Other than at a federal level, I often hear that it is
HR's responsibility to do it. However I hear from a good many government HR folks that they don't actually have the authority to even
offer this type of training let alone require it. (They can and should
heartily lobby for this type of training, of course, but may not
ultimately be have the power to assure that it happens.) In my
experience, more thorough ethics training usually needs to be set up by
agency or department heads regardless of the level of government, by city managers when at the local level, etc. Whether they can offer it versus
requiring it is different from place to place and agency or department to agency or department. However, they certainly have
the authority to put the training process in place.

If you work in government and have the
authority to set up more thorough ethics training than what your officials and employees are getting now, use it! If you don't have that authority, be sure to work
with those who do to help them see the value in ethics training that
goes well beyond what we usually see as 'government ethics'. The return
on investment in that training – for government officials and employees at all levels of government – can be huge. (And, of course, that's before calculating the even broader return for the citizens for whom those officials and employees are working.)

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