With the holiday season approaching, there is no time like the present (no pun intended) for local government leaders to review their organization’s practices and policies for accepting gifts from appreciative residents, local businesses, and vendors.
The best policies or practices should support the organization’s values, help staff and officials make good judgments, communicate clear expectations to all, be uniformly and fairly applied and enforced across the organization, and, in addition, build public trust and confidence in the integrity of the staff and organization. When you have completed the organizational assessment, consider whether you are the role model for exemplary conduct.
Local governments address the challenges of gift giving and receiving in a variety of ways ranging from a pure values-based approach, which empowers the individual to make the judgment call based on shared values, to a stricter regulatory standard.
Regardless of the approach, it is always important to encourage individuals to think about appearances and how their conduct contributes to an ethical culture. Just establishing a set of rules without explaining how they support good public service values won’t be effective in achieving the desired conduct.
ICMA’s Code of Ethics expresses a core commitment to seek no favor and offers this guidance on gifts:
Members should not directly or indirectly solicit any gift or accept or receive any gift—whether it be money, services, loan, travel, entertainment, hospitality, promise, or any other form—under the following circumstances: (1) it could be reasonably inferred or expected that the gift was intended to influence them in the performance of their official duties; or (2) the gift was intended to serve as a reward for any official action on their part. It is important that the prohibition of unsolicited gifts be limited to circumstances related to improper influence. In de minimus situations, such as meal checks, some modest maximum dollar value should be determined by the member as a guideline. The guideline is not intended to isolate members from normal social practices where gifts among friends, associates, and relatives are appropriate for certain occasions.
Encourage all staff and officials to literally “seek no favor.” Don’t leverage your official position for advantage, and do not take or solicit gifts related to your official position.
If the policy sets a value limit on gifts, make sure that it passes the reasonable-person standard, that is, is the gift small enough that a reasonable person would assume it was not a reward or intended to gain favor? Acknowledging the ambiguity of the reasonable-person standard, some policies set the threshold at zero and permit only token gifts of food that can be shared with others.
Creating a framework for decision making, placing value limits on gifts, and implementing a disclosure requirement can provide individuals the guidance needed when the issue isn’t clear. The policy in place in the city of Phoenix, Arizona, advises employees: “That while you are the first to decide whether to accept any gift, you must recognize that others will decide if there is ‘the appearance of favoritism’ for your having accepted a gift.” The policy provides a practical list of gifts—examples include Arizona Cardinals football tickets, college tournament tickets, and symphony hall performances—that an employee must declare if accepted.
In addition to educating staff and officials about gift policies, go the extra step to make sure that residents, businesses, and vendors understand the values and policies that drive the organization. Vendors interested in doing business with the city of Tempe, Arizona, are informed of the city’s no-gift policy (including no meals) when they register to do business with the city. One city manager sends thank you notes letting the gift giver know how the gift will be used (donated to the staff holiday party or homeless shelter, for example) and explains the limitations on accepting gifts. Gifts that violate the city policy are returned with a note from the manager explaining why.
A grateful public rightfully acknowledges the contributions of public safety and other frontline service providers. Leaders need to acknowledge the contributions of all who work to deliver services by establishing and enforcing a uniform policy across the organization. That said, some employees by virtue of their roles and responsibilities will be held to a higher standard.
The city of Decatur, Georgia, expresses it well. While no employee should solicit or accept any gift or gratuity from anyone who has official business with the city, “it is particularly important that managerial employees, contracting officers, inspectors, and enforcement officers guard against any relationship which might be construed as evidence of favoritism, coercion, unfair advantage or collusion.”
The headlines about gifts and gratuities across all business lines and professional sectors are ugly, demoralizing, and a source of great embarrassment. We work hard to establish credibility and trust with the public by paying attention to appearances and holding ourselves accountable. If accepting a gift undermines your credibility or creates the appearance of impropriety, don’t do it. Often the best strategy is to simply say, “no thank you.” Remember, there is always free cheese in a mousetrap!
Ethics advice is a popular service provided to ICMA members. The ICMA Executive Board members who serve on the Committee on Professional Conduct review the inquiries and advice published in PM magazine. ICMA members who have questions about their obligations under the ICMA Code of Ethics are encouraged to call Martha Perego at 202/962-3668 or Elizabeth Kellar at 202/962-3611.