How Ethical is Your Local Government?

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Shortly after I first volunteered to serve on my local ethics board, the results of a survey were released that concerned me quite a bit.  The survey was done by a non-profit organization created to represent and provide support for the local governments in our state. Since the organization was run by by local government officials, the people conducting the survey understood the dynamics of local government and the ethical issues government officials faced regularly.  To the surprise and chagrin of our local leaders, our town scored near the bottom in the rankings of ethical safeguards.  Of course I was concerned.

I hadn’t volunteered to sit on the ethics board because I was worried about the ethical behavior of our local officials.  I’d spent many years serving as a lawyer and consultant for government entities and I simply thought this was one area where my experience could prove useful to my home community.  Once I joined the board, however, I began to hear concerns about the way the board had acted in the past, the opinons it had rendered and the way it conducted itself.  I found that the board had recently ben sued over its procedures and that the League of Women Voters was conducting a study to see if the Town’s ethical controls could be improved. When it was completed, the study called for significant changes in our local code.

The concerns I was hearing might have given some credence to the low ranking the Town had been given in the statewide survey, but it was quite at odds with my impressions when I met the other members of the Board and saw them in action. They all seemed quite capable and sincerely interested in doing the right thing.  Moreover, the board wasn’t doing a particularly brisk business, so it didn’t seem that members of the public actually had many concerns of their own about the town’s ethical standards or whether they were being adhered to.  What accounted for the difference between the public perception and what seemed to be the reality?

Over the last seven years, I think I’ve gained some insights into this disconnect.  We’ve made some significant changes in how we operate during that period, including changes in our procedures, more coordination with other agents of town government and various other outreach efforts.  But in our efforts to reach out and communicate it’s been important to maintain a discrete profile. For a board whose ultimate role is to pass on complaints, it’s important to maintain our impartiality and make sure that everyone has confidence that we’ll interpret our local ethics code fairly, without any agendas, hidden or otherwise. So, for example, although many members of the board applauded the initiatives of the League of Women Voters, the board didn’t respond to a request to suggest changes to the code to them. Nor did the board formally endorse their recommendations with respect to changes in the code. Either of these actions might have created the appearance that the board wasn’t fully prepared to interpret and enforce the existing code in a fair and impartial way.

 If a new survey of ethical practices in local government was done in our state today, I’d like to think that our town would come out close to the top.  But there is still much to be done and a final stage of our outreach is to try to connect with members of the broader community of persons who are addressing similar concerns.  Through this personal blog, I’ll begin to explore the role that social media might   I’ll be sharing what we’ve done and how it’s been received in future posts, but I’d be interested to see if anyone else  has had similar experiences and what their perspectives might be.  In particular, I’d like to know other government officials or interested member sof the public think are the most important factors in shaping the ethical profile of government.

This blog is part of an effort to explore whether there might be an appropriate role for  social media in improving the ethical profile of government.  For example, individual members of our board often handle questions from government officials and members of the public about ethical matters on  a one-to-one, confidential and non-official basis. Typically, these inquiries influence ethical decisions, but don’t reach the level of a formal opinion or decision or even a discussion with other members of the board, since these would be prohibited by freedom of information act requirements.  Would more people share their questions in an Internet forum? Would it be useful for the questions and answers to be dealt with more publicly, even if the questions were raised anonymously and the answers weren’t official?  Could this kind of system be abused and used to manipulate and distort the results that the carefully deliberative system that’s now in place provides?  And how would one implement such a system within the proper jurisdiction of the board and in compliance with freedom of information act requirements?

Somehow, it doesn’t seem right to have a Facebook or Twitter account for a board of ethics, but perhaps that’s just because we aren’t accustomed to thinking in these terms.  There are many other issues that might be addressed. Who should be in charge of government ethics?  How much involvement should the general public have?  Are disclosure and openness more effective controls over ethical behavior than strict guidelines and procedures?  Should ethical restrictions be limited to financial matters or should they deal with various kinds of political and personal relationships also? On all of these issues, we could benefit from hearing the views of others outside our local area.

As I share some of my experiences and concerns with you, please share your experiences and concerns with me.  Thanks!

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