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Assessing the Ethical Culture of Your Agency

Arne Croce is city manager of San Mateo and can be reached at acroce@cityofsanmateo.org. Jan Perkins is senior advisor for the International City/County Managers Association and can be reached at jperkins@ICMA.org. JoAnne Speers is executive director of the Institute for Local Government and can be reached at jspeers@ca-ilg.org.


Having personal ethics is important. However, as the leader of his or her agency, a manager is responsible for more. If an employee makes an ethical or legal misstep, ultimately it will reflect poorly on the manager. It will also reflect on the public’s perception of the agency.
 
The International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) Code of Ethics suggests that “members ... conduct themselves so as to maintain public confidence in their profession, their local government, and in their performance of the public trust” (emphasis added). How then does a manager promote public confidence in the agency as a whole? An important practice is to lead your agency in a way that fosters a culture of ethics.
Organizational Culture Determines Organizational Behavior
Ethics and public confidence are not just about a manager’s faithful adherence to the ICMA Code of Ethics, although that’s an important first step. Just as superior organizational performance requires every-one to pull in the same direction, so does organizational ethics. If you are a city or agency manager, your staff is likely to engage in behaviors that they believe are valued by management. What signals are you sending about the kinds of behaviors and attitudes you value? What kinds of behaviors are rewarded? Does your organization have a mission or values statement? Are ethical values a part of that statement?
One way to find out what kinds of signals your staff is picking up is to do an assessment — either formally or informally. From there, you can determine the agency’s strengths and weaknesses. That in turn can help you formulate a strategy to maximize the agency’s ethical culture. An assessment can also be a jumping-off point for internal ethics education efforts.
A new tool is available now to help managers reflect on their organization’s culture in terms of ethics. Available free online at www.ca-ilg.org/culturechecks, the questionnaire probes such issues as whether employees feel encouraged to:
  • Use ethical behaviors in the process of getting results on behalf of the public;
  • Feel encouraged to comply with the spirit, as well as the letter, of laws; and
  • Display civility and respect for their colleagues, even when there is disagreement.
The assessment has three parts: 1) the employees’ perceptions of expectationsof the employee; 2) the employee’s perceptions of management’s attitudes and behavior; and 3) the employee’s perceptionsof elected officials’ attitudes and behavior.
The assessment can be used in a number of ways. The first and most modest is for you to review the questions and anticipate what kinds of responses the organization’s employees are likely to give to the questions. Most managers have a fairly strong sense of their organization’s culture. Thinking about the questions on the assessment can alert managers to potential ethical blind spots (for example, a “get it done” or “whatever it takes” culture) or problem areas.
The next task is to ask your leadership team to complete the assessment. This approach offers you the opportunity to receive feedback on the organization’s culture and sensitize the management team to the kinds of issues that can either enhance or erode the organization’s ethical culture.
Another way the assessment can be used is for all employees to take it. This will give you a top-to-bottom assessment of your team’s sensitivity to ethics issues and the kinds of prevailing messages in the organization.
Finally, elected and appointed officials can also be included in the assessment process as part of an overall organizational commitment to ethics.
The San Mateo Experience
The City of San Mateo used a phased approach to assess its organizational culture. The assessment became a focal point for an organization-wide conversation on ethics in the workplace. The city manager first introduced the concept at an executive team meeting in early 2006. The meeting involved a discussion of general principles of public service ethics and the nature of the assessment process. Top management staff expressed enthusiasm for going forward with the assessment as one step in a process to reinforce and strengthen the city’s ethical culture.
The management team agreed to complete the assessment. The manager met with the team to discuss the results of the survey, the city’s current environment and how it could be strengthened even further. The team also provided valuable input on how to maximize the assessment instrument’s effectiveness.
The group decided to take the discussion deeper into the organization. The assessment was distributed to line managers (about 50 positions) responsible for major divisions within the city departments. The managers received the results of their feedback in a workshop that included a review of public service ethics principles and frameworks.
The assessment was then distributed to all members of the city organization. As Western City goes to press, the results of the full assessment are still being tabulated. Earlier distributions to management indicated a very strong culture of ethics within the organization — a positive sign. Staff also rated the city council’s ethics highly, suggesting a strong “tone at the top.”
Although San Mateo is already firmly committed to ethical practices, the city is exploring a number of ways to rein-force that culture. Department heads are facilitating discussion on the ethical dimensions of issues facing their staff. The city is offering training to those departments that request it and adding ethics as a value to its statement of core values.
The Beverly Hills Experience
City Manager Rod Wood, an early and strong supporter of the ICMA Code of Ethics, decided to engage his executive team in discussions about their roles as leaders in building an ethical culture in their organization. Wood used the code as the framework for those discussions and established the expectation that each member of the executive team would follow its tenets.
The city invited ICMA to conduct training on its code of ethics for the executive team and for the full management staff on practical applications of everyday ethics. The manager and team understood that even though Beverly Hills staff had a strong reputation for professionalism and high standards, ethical challenges can and do arise in a variety of ways for employees, who need to be prepared to deal with circumstances as they arise.
Prior to the ethics training workshop for the executive team, members participated in the online ethics assessment survey. ICMA compiled the results and used them in the workshop to focus discussions with the executive team. The questionnaire helped the team identify where they could best spend their time in fostering an even stronger culture of ethics in the city organization. Using the assessment tool, the executive staff was able to identify where the team believes the organization was doing well and where the team members should focus more attention with staff in helping employees understand how to deal with difficult situations. The city manager and executive team believed the assessment and training were very useful.
Conclusion
Asking staff to complete the assessment can be a scary proposition. However, this is a situation where what you don’t know really can hurt you professionally and personally. Having ethics issues arise within the agency on your watch can damage your reputation as a manager; it can also take a significant personal toll in terms of stress and efforts to engage in damage control.
Anticipating how staff will respond to the questions can provide helpful food for thought to a manager who has strong personal ethics but may have emphasized other issues in hiring, performance evaluation and other forms of feedback on what the manager values. For the workforce, simply completing the assessment prompts thinking about ethical issues and behavior. It’s never too early to have discussions with staff about your commitment to serving the public both effectively and ethically.
As management expert Peter Drucker has observed, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Are you leading your organization to do the right things?
 
Issues Explored by Ethics Assessment
The ethics assessment referenced in the accompanying article explores the following kinds of organizational issues:
  • Do employees feel encouraged to come forward and report any unethical practices they see in the course of their duties?
  •  Are members of the public treated equally regardless of personal or political connections?
  •  What is the prevailing attitude about the acceptance of gifts or favors from those who do business with the agency? OK? Not OK?
  •  Is an environment of ethics and professionalism actively promoted within the agency?
  • Are employees encouraged to act according to the spirit as well as the letter of the law?
  • Is the public treated with civility and respect?
The assessment asks these questions from three points of view:
1.       What do respondents do?
2.       What do respondents perceive management as doing? and
3.       What do respondents perceive elected officials as doing?
This tool is available free online at www.ca-ilg.org/culturechecks.  
More Resources Are Available
For additional resources on public service ethics, visit the Institute for Local Government (ILG) Ethics Resource Center at www.ca-ilg.org/trust, which offers information on ethics assessments, ethics laws, AB 1234 compliance and more.
ILG’s work in public service ethics is supported by the League, the California State Association of Counties, private sector sponsors, foundation grants and individual donations. For more information on how you can support ILG’s work, contact JoAnne Speers, executive director, at (916) 658-8233 or jspeers@ca-ilg.org.