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Taking Proactive Steps to Avoid Scandal

photo, Baona; graphic, traffic_analyzer

It seems that not a day goes by without a headline, a blog post or a tweet about public corruption, a scandal involving a government official or allegations of misconduct. The numbers are significant. In 2012, more than 1,000 public officials nationwide were convicted of bribery, fraud, perjury and/or theft. The preceding 20 years saw an average of 1,013 public corruption cases annually (see An In-Depth Look at Public Corruption in California, DePangher, 2014, at bit.ly/2zBNbGk). However, despite the numbers, the vast majority of public servants are honest and trustworthy. Unfortunately, it takes only one ethics allegation, violation, arrest or conviction to tarnish the credibility of all public servants and erode the public’s trust in government. Although only a small minority of individuals violate the public’s trust, all public officials must be proactive in assuring the public that the people’s business is being carried out in an ethical and transparent manner.

What can you do to help build, restore and maintain the public’s trust in your City Hall and help your city avoid being ensnared in the next scandal? Fortunately, you can implement many proven strategies to stay out of those headlines. Here are three that have stood the test of time:

1.   Be familiar with the laws and key principles regarding public servants’ ethical behavior;

2.   Foster a culture in your City Hall of good governance and transparency; and

3.   Ensure that City Hall staff have the training they need to carry out their responsibilities in an ethical manner, and encourage them to speak up if they see something unusual.

To help local officials navigate this landscape, the League and its research affiliate, the Institute for Local Government (ILG), offer many resources through the Western City “Everyday Ethics for Local Officials” series and on the ILG website that expand on these strategies. This column summarizes fundamental concepts from these resources.

Key Laws and Principles Regarding Ethics

In California, state and federal laws create a set of requirements to guide public servants in their work on behalf of the community. As is often the case, compliance with the law is seldom the end of the analysis. When making decisions or taking action, the savvy local official embraces the notion that the law creates a floor for ethical behavior — not a ceiling. In other words, just because a particular course of action is legal doesn’t mean that it is ethical.

Understandably, local officials are busy serving their communities and residents and don’t have unlimited time to read a library of articles on how to handle a situation involving ethics. That’s why many rely on the “Front Page” litmus test to inform their decision-making. Since it was published in 2012, “The ‘Front Page’ Test: An Easy Ethics Standard” continues to be one of Western City’s most popular and frequently read articles. This test requires asking yourself, “How would I feel if the course of action I am considering were reported on the front page of the local newspaper or blog?” If it would leave you feeling uncomfortable, it’s wise to consider a different course of action.

Public officials must also know when to remove themselves from the decision-making process to avoid a conflict of interest or even the appearance of a conflict. A conflict of interest arises when a public official has a personal financial or other interest in the outcome of a matter. In the case of a public official who has a conflict of interest in a matter, the law may prohibit or ban participating in the decision-making process. At other times, there may not be a direct conflict, but the appearance of impropriety or questions regarding a public official’s ability to be impartial may exist. In those circumstances, it might be best for the public official to abstain from voting on a particular matter in order to protect the integrity — or the perception of the integrity — of the process. The article “Deciding When to Step Aside From the Decision-Making Process: Abstentions and Disqualifications” provides a useful overview of the distinctions between abstentions and disqualifications and the actions a public official can take to stay on the right side of the law and ethics.

Understanding the Basics of Public Service Ethics Laws, another resource to help public officials develop a solid understanding of public ethics laws, is a comprehensive guide available on the ILG website. Topics covered include personal gain, gifts and other perks, transparency, fair process laws, federal ethics laws and the consequences for ethics laws violations.

When it comes to handling ethical situations, things are rarely black and white; there are many gray areas. It’s always a good idea to consult your city attorney, who can help guide you through the legal framework that applies and advise you on other steps you might take to maintain the public trust.

Fostering a Transparent and Ethical Culture

Agency leaders set the tone at the top of their organizations, and the converse is also true: “A fish stinks from the head down.” By promoting good governance practices throughout the organization, agency leaders can help set an ethical tone. Leaders who fail to do this risk an environment and organizational culture where ethical lapses and scandals can proliferate. Wonder where your agency falls on the scale of good governance practices? ILG’s “Good Governance Checklist: Good and Better Practices” is a useful tool designed to help local officials and staff assess their current practices and identify areas for improvement.

Transparency — both on the part of the agency and the agency staff — is one of the hallmarks of good governance. A commitment to transparency demonstrates to the public that neither you nor your agency have anything to hide. Today, city websites, public access channels and social media tools provide opportunities for local agencies to share information with the public and the media about current topics of interest to your community. Besides enabling the public to get information about city actions and to observe government proceedings live, these tools also enable residents to participate in the process on a real-time basis. For ideas on what to consider including on your website, read “Local Agency Opportunities for Website Transparency.”

An engaged public is another hallmark of good governance. In the aftermath of a scandal, one of the first questions asked is, “How could this have happened?” The post-mortem on a scandal often includes mention of the lack of citizen engagement as a condition that enabled a culture of deception to flourish. A meaningful opportunity for public participation in government processes is fundamental to our democracy and can serve as an important check on abuses of public positions. This engagement is also a core component of the civic infrastructure in any community and as vital to a community’s health and well-being as physical infrastructure. For more information on how to plan and execute efforts to engage the public in your community, see ILG’s TIERS Public Engagement Framework.

Train Staff on Ethics and Its Value to the Organization

Setting the tone for employees in your city begins with the recruiting process for job candidates and during new employee orientation. As part of the hiring process, emphasize to candidates your city’s mission and values, including your expectations for the highest ethical conduct from all employees. Asking questions in the interview process that will allow you to assess how a candidate might handle a difficult work-related ethical situation is another element of this strategy.

The orientation process for newly hired employees presents another opportunity to convey the value the city places on ethics and the importance of building and maintaining the public’s trust. This is especially important with staff who are new to the public sector and may not have any knowledge or awareness of the important differences between public-sector and private-sector employment. “Getting Public Employees Off to a Good Start” features strategies for raising awareness in the workplace about the special obligations of being a public agency staff member and includes an easy-reference orientation chart for new hires. ILG offers additional resources on the “Local Government Basics for Those New to Local Public Service” page of its website.

Throughout the course of an employee’s career with a public agency, it’s also a smart strategy to provide refresher training on ethics laws and principles as well as recent changes in this area, which is dynamic by nature.

For example, the City of Palo Alto worked with ILG to develop training for its entire staff based on the city’s code of ethics. “Palo Alto used the ethical values advanced by ILG to provide a foundation for guiding ethical behavior and decision-making,” says Palo Alto City Manager Jim Keene. “The citywide training conducted by ILG helped our employees understand how these values inform our public service and how to integrate ethics in our work and daily lives.” For more information, visit www.ca-ilg.org/ethicstraining or contact Melissa Kuehne, communications and development director; phone: (916) 658-8202; email: mkuehne@ca-ilg.org.

Keeping Ethics at the Forefront

In addition to utilizing the recruiting process, orientation sessions and ongoing training to raise awareness of the importance and expectations regarding ethical behavior, certain public officials in California are required to take two hours of formal training in ethics principles and laws every two years. This training is referred to as AB 1234 training, named for the bill that established the requirement (AB 1234, Chapter 700, Statutes of 2005). ILG offers several resources to help local officials comply with this requirement, including a set of frequently asked questions.

Building and maintaining the public’s trust requires public officials with knowledge and understanding of ethics laws, a culture of ethics in the workplace and agency staff who are trained in applying ethics principles in their daily work. I encourage you to periodically review the resources presented here and hold conversations about ethics with your staff and elected officials. By keeping ethics at the forefront of our organizations, we can avoid becoming front-page news. The League and ILG are here to support your work in this area.


Read the Website Exclusive Feature on Governance

A new article on governance from the Institute for Local Government offers tips and insights about the attributes of exceptional governance teams.


Related Resources

An In-Depth Look at Public Corruption in California

Understanding the Basics of Public Service Ethics Laws

State Ethics Training Requirements for Local Officials: Frequently Asked Questions

Institute for Local Government TIERS Public Engagement Framework

The “Front Page” Test: An Easy Ethics Standard

Deciding When to Step Aside From the Decision-Making Process: Abstentions And Disqualifications

Good Governance Checklist: Good and Better Practices

Getting Public Employees Off to a Good Start

Local Government Basics for Those New to Local Public Service

Local Agency Opportunities for Website Transparency

How Effective Is Your Council?

Tips for Effective Governance


Photo credit: Birizo.

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