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January/February 2009 · Volume 91 · Number 1

Departments

ethics


Focus on the Fundamentals


At the beginning of this new year, local government leaders may well face significant challenges in delivering ethical, transparent democracy. Limited financial resources at every level of government are likely to force difficult choices about services, commitments, and investments in the future.

Although opportunities and innovation may result as well, it will no doubt be a tough period. Successfully navigating staff, organizations, and communities through challenging times requires leaders to focus on the fundamentals, that is, on ethics. Building a strong ethical foundation is the key to success. During periods of uncertainty, it’s prudent for managers to take steps to ensure that the foundation is rock solid.

Is there agreement about the core values that will drive decision making and policies? Do we demonstrate respect for the unique roles and responsibilities of elected officials, staff, and residents? In the push for results and accountability, is it clear to all that how we achieve our goals is as critical as getting there?

Consider these steps to promote an ethical culture:

  • Renew your commitment to the profession’s values. Commitment is more than hanging the ICMA Code of Ethics on the wall (although that isn’t a bad idea). It is a dedication to the highest standards of honor and integrity in all public and personal matters in order to merit the respect and confidence of those we serve. It is unwavering integrity.
  • Engage elected officials. Use council orientations and goal-setting sessions to encourage elected officials to understand how their conduct and commitment to public service values contribute to ethical government. Take the time to enlighten them about the ICMA Code of Ethics and the values that guide professional local government managers.
  • Set organizational values. If the organization lacks a code of ethics or statement of values, implement a process that engages elected officials, staff, and residents in the definition of core values and acceptable conduct. If you have a code of ethics, is there clarity and agreement on the core values that drive critical decisions? Organizations or teams with shared values produce the best results.
  • Ethics training. It’s a myth that good people always make wise choices. Regular training builds awareness of common ethical issues, provides tools and strategies for effective problem solving, and, yes, can even inspire someone to do the right thing when faced with a difficult ethical dilemma.
  • Welcome the dialogue and the dissenter. Make sure that individuals have formal and informal opportunities to raise any ethical concerns they may have about conduct or decisions in the organization. Create a safe environment for those seeking advice or raising a warning.
  • Transparency, transparency, transparency. Clear and regular communication, complete and accurate disclosure of the facts, taking responsibility for decisions and outcomes, and a focus on transparent processes all work to build trust with those we serve.

As Dave Childs, ICMA senior adviser and assistant county manager, Washoe County, Nevada, notes, “We are all experiencing a time of extreme stress in our organizations. A key result is that our employees are justifiably worried about the stability of their jobs, about their personal finances, and ultimately about their own future. In uncertain times, it is imperative that we provide our employees something solid to hold on to.

“And, to that end, what could be more important than having every employee be totally sure of the values and ethics of their workplace and their organization? As the leaders of our organizations, we need to redouble our efforts to bring that sense of stability and grounding to all of the dedicated employees who serve the public each and every day. Building a solid ethical foundation is one of the keys to providing that stability and restoring confidence. And now is the time to begin.”

—Martha Perego
ICMA Ethics Director
Washington, D.C.
mperego@icma.org


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.