Why Appearances DO Matter

Because we cannot know the character or motivations of those who manage our communities, and because we cannot know how much their personal obligations affect their decisions, we can judge them, and hold them accountable, only by their actions and their relationships as they appear on their face.

In other words, in government ethics, appearances are what matters most. Motivations, feelings, and character are irrelevant.

This is difficult for most government officials to understand, because what they see when they look at themselves is their motivations, feelings, and character, all those things that are invisible to their community.

Because officials see their ethical decision-making from the inside and the public sees it from the outside, the best way for an official to handle a conflict situation responsibly is to describe his situation to a neutral observer, to a government ethics adviser if possible, to see how the conduct would appear to others.

Because how a situation appears to the public is so important, and no law can responsibly deal with the appearance of impropriety in enforceable provisions, government ethics laws are only minimum guidelines.

What this means is that a government official who has a relationship with someone involved in a matter that has come before him needs to recognize that, even though this relationship is not covered by an ethics code provision, a failure to handle this conflict situation responsibly has the same effect on the public in terms of their trust as it would were the situation covered by the ethics code. For example, if an ethics provision does not prohibit an official from helping his sister-in-law get a contract, that doesn’t mean he should help get her the contract. He should seek advice about what to do, even if participating in the contract process is legal. This is why ethics advice is so important.

Ethics advice is not limited by laws. It can take into account the appearance of impropriety. Enforcement, on the other hand, cannot.

As for the public, what is difficult is recognizing that much conduct that appears improper, such as incivility, lying, love affairs, or drug use, is outside the province of a government ethics program. Government ethics programs are limited to dealing with conflicts of interest.

– Wechsler, Robert. Local Government Ethics Programs in a Nutshell. City Ethics, Inc.
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