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In Search of Ethics of Character Over Conduct

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mike Applegarth
August 19, 2019

Open any professional governmental publication or news outlet and you are sure to see local governments small and large wrestling with controversies broadly labeled as, “Ethics,” issues. For example, will enhanced financial disclosure requirements really lead to more accountability in public office? Should a council member who runs a business downtown be excluded from discussing downtown redevelopment? Do research trips count as reportable gifts? And my most recent favorite, should a former ethics commissioner be allowed to run for a public office vacated in part due to the action of the ethics commission itself? Questions like these often result in the creation of new ethics ordinances, standards of conduct, commissions and review boards to further demonstrate to a skeptical public a local government’s commitment to good conduct.

There are two problems with such a reaction. First, I suggest that there is a significant disconnect between what the public understands as ethics, and what government refers to as ethics. My guess is that to the vast majority of the public, the word ethics conjures up ideas of being a good person, choosing right instead of wrong or treating others well. In other words, the general understanding is that ethics is connected to an individual’s character—their heart if you will.

But is that what governmental ethics requirements are about? I suggest they are not. Governmental ethics center on transparency with the assumption that transparency will lead to accountability. It’s not a bad goal. Disclose your other sources of income and real property interests. Document contributions. Sign a form agreeing to act professionally in meetings. Make records available for public inspection. There is nothing inherently wrong with such requirements. They can be useful accountability tools for the public.

The problem is that good conduct is not necessarily an indicator of good character. The mechanisms government has developed to separate a public official’s personal and public life are incapable of getting to the heart of the ethical matter, which is the heart or character of the public official. A person can faithfully adhere to a host of ethical reporting requirements and still be self-interested, dishonest, vindictive or combative—characteristics that much of the public would consider unethical. I would also suggest that occasional errors in form-filling, financial reporting, or misplaced passions at a public meeting do not necessarily indicate a flawed character.

Second, given this gap between what ethics means to most, and what it looks like practically in the halls of government, the tools of ethics enforcement have become weaponized. The multiplication of conduct and reporting standards has made it far too easy for a political opponent to allege that an ethics violation has occurred. Instead of drawing attention to the transparency/accountability perhaps at the core of an issue, the public assumes that the perpetrator is therefore, “Unethical.” The details of the alleged violation quickly become irrelevant when character becomes the target. In many of the previously cited examples, the situations described had no precedent. Yet, the involvement of a higher authority such as an auditor, oversight panel or citizen committee to investigate or require correction seems only to emphasize to the public that the individual involved is unscrupulous, regardless of the outcome.

The result of this disconnect between character and conduct in the language and understanding of ethics is increasing distrust of local government. The public wants public servants with good character and assumes good conduct will follow. Yet, most of the ethical tools and regulations in place within local government today can only address conduct, and that on a very limited basis. The proliferation of ethical requirements perhaps only provides yet another opportunity to reconfirm the myth of government-dysfunction-deserved skepticism.

I am not advocating the removal of reasonable mechanisms to improve transparency. The public deserves to know where potential conflicts exist with its officials.  An ounce of prevention is probably worth a pound of cure. However, local government can be more judicious in what we label as an ethical issue. Most of what currently falls under the umbrella of ethics in government is not really an ethical matter at all, at least in the way I believe the public understands ethics. Local government is filled with a lot of good people with great hearts who serve for the right reasons. Let’s find a way to emphasize that and not unwittingly feed the illusion of greed and graft.

Mike Applegarth is the Executive Director of the Sandy City Council in Sandy, Utah. He can be reached at [email protected]

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