Government ethics is not about being “good” or “a person of integrity.” It’s not something officials learn at home, at school, or in their house of worship. In fact, conduct that is praiseworthy outside of government, such as helping a family member get a job or returning a favor one has been given, is considered wrong in a government context.
Government ethics is about acting responsibly and professionally, as a government official or employee, under certain circumstances and following certain rules and procedures. It is about preserving institutional rather than personal integrity. Government ethics decision-making should be just another professional routine.
For the purpose of government ethics, “ethics” does not mean the field of study concerned with being or doing good (the word’s usual meaning). The word “ethics” means the area of decision-making involving conflicts between, on the one hand, the obligations government officials and employees have toward the public and, on the other hand, their obligations to themselves and their family, their business associates, and others with whom they have a special relationship (what are known as “conflicts of interest” or, simply, “conflicts”).
Government ethics involves not only the reality of these obligations, and of the underlying relationships, but also the appearance of these obligations and relationships. Government ethics laws provide minimum, enforceable guidelines to facilitate the handling of conflict situations. Government ethics programs provide training and advice to further facilitate the handling of conflict situations. Government ethics programs also require financial and relationship disclosure, which provides information to help the public,as well as officials, better determine if conflicts might exist, so that they are more likely to be dealt with responsibly.
The principal goal of a local government ethics program is to further the public’s trust in those who govern their communities to put their personal interests aside in favor of the public interest. Without this trust, people tend not to participate in their government, even as voters, and they feel as if their government was something apart from their community, an organization designed to benefit its members, rather than an organization that serves and manages the community.
It is important to recognize that the opposite of trust is not distrust, which we need in order to keep our representatives accountable, but a lack of trust. A lack of trust causes people not to accept their government’s decisions as fair. A democratic government does not thrive when there is a lack of trust in those who govern it.
Other goals of a local government ethics program include (1) to stop ethical misconduct before it becomes criminal misconduct, and (2) to establish best practices and a healthy ethics environment at the level where most elected officials learn the ropes. Local government is where the individuals who become our state and federal representatives too often experience their first poor ethics environment, learn the wrong rules, misplace their loyalty, and begin to feel a special entitlement. Effective local government ethics programs indirectly create healthy ethics environments in state and federal government organizations, as well.
Finally, government ethics is not a policy, but a process. This process complements procurement, grant, and land use processes and, like them, is essential to accountability and democracy.
– Wechsler, Robert. Local Government Ethics Programs in a Nutshell. City Ethics, Inc.
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