Ethics “In a Nutshell”

Robert Wechsler, director of CityEthics.org, has just released a new intro to local government ethics called “Local Government Ethics Programs in a Nutshell”, in which he has distilled an 800-page digital book and years of blog posts into a 27-page resource for public officials, journalists and others interested in good government. Here’s a bit out of the intro:

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…It is about preserving institutional rather than personal integrity. Government ethics decision-making should be just another professional routine.

We also sometimes talk about ethics in the public domain as public morality vs. private morality, and I favor an approach that deals with what to do when conflicts occur, not if.

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.

That’s different from what I’ve been hearing recently from “members” commenting at local websites. Lately their narrative goes something like, “Apathy comes from local bloggers who criticize and ‘demoralize’ local officials and they’d better stop right now or nobody good will run for office ever again!”

To that I say: “Dear Demoralized: If this is true, you are in the wrong biz.” Any elected person who can become “demoralized” by a couple of critics is somebody who’s going to get bulldozed by appointed administrators, who in my observation tend to be extremely well-trained in the twin persuasive arts of flattery and bullying. That’s how people people with good intentions forget who the boss is, follow the prescribed agenda and then wonder why the unconnected locals are throwing tomatoes. It’s a vicious cycle.

What we need is leaders who value the public trust above all. At the city level generally, we don’t have that — and we won’t, not with 22.3% voter participation.