making local government more ethical

Albert Hirschman's Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

In memory of Albert O.Hirschman, an important economist and political scientist who died last month, I want to apply some of the ideas from his most famous book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), to local government ethics (back in 2009, I pulled out a few thought-provoking passages from his 1983 book, Shifting Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action).

Of the three concepts in the title of Hirschman's book, loyalty is the one most often encountered in government ethics. Loyalty in a government organization is one of the primary causes of ethical misconduct, and one of the most serious obstacles to an organization instituting an ethics program that will successfully prevent ethical misconduct and deal with it effectively when it occurs.

Voice is extremely important to the democratic values that underlie government ethics. Voice is the way individuals and groups of individuals (including government employees and officials) let their dissatisfaction with government policies and misconduct be known. Voice is the principal secondary goal of government ethics. The primary goal is to maintain the public's trust in government. But public trust is not important simply in its own right. It is also important because, without public trust, citizens give up voicing their concerns through participation in government, either informally through public comments, letters to the editor, and blogs, or formally through sitting on boards and commissions, running for office, participating in campaigns, or voting.

When a citizen, or an official or employee, feels she is wasting her time voicing her concerns, the principal alternative (short of overthrow) is exit. But it's not the ordinary exit, for example, of a consumer who finds the quality of a company's products poor and, therefore, buys from another company. How many people ever leave their city or county due to a poor government ethics environment? And, unless exiting caught on and led to house prices plummeting, who would care? In colonial days, and even in the early days of the new nation, groups of people did protest by picking up and founding another town, first in the east and later in the west. But this almost never happens anymore.

The way citizens exit is to give up their voice. They stop going to public meetings, choose not to join party committees or serve on government boards, and don't even bother to vote or follow the news about their local governments.

Actual exit is a solution for those who are part of a government organization. However, even the resignation of officials and employees, if it is not accompanied by a powerful use of their voices ("voice after exit"), has little or no effect on a poor ethics environment. It is hard to know whether one's voice will be more effective inside or outside an organization. Sadly, as Hirschman recognized, most officials, when they leave office, say they are doing it for private purposes, giving up their voice in addition to exiting.

Exit and Voice
In fact, even exit and protest together often has little effect. Take Jackson County, KS (home of Kansas City). When in 2009 most of its ethics commission resigned in protest at county legislators exempting themselves from its jurisdiction, this had little effect. Or consider Kentucky. When most of its state legislative ethics commission, and the executive director, resigned in protest in 1996, the program simply continued, with a new, highly respected executive director, who remains loyal to the program.

Why is exit, even combined with voice, often done in vain? Hirschman pointed out that, "in the political realm ... exit has often been branded as criminal, for it has been labeled desertion, defection, and treason." And in our culture, we don't respect and listen to people who quit. We feel that people should continue to fight, even that they owe this to the community that elected them or for whom they worked.

Another problem is that exit works best when one can exit to a rival organization. But a local government has no rival, except perhaps city vs. county. But they usually provide different services, complement rather than compete. Exiting to work for another government doesn't matter to anyone. Leaving one party for the other (or another) is another form of exit, but most local governments are either nonpartisan or essentially one-party. In any event, to the public, changing parties is not a form of exit at all; it's voicing a protest or going with the party that you feel will take power, that is, a selfish choice.

For those in government, there is an alternative to exit or voice:  acquiescence, being co-pted, giving up your voice. This limbo is what many government officials and employees choose. It usually involves a reasonable belief that the probability of influencing decisions is minimal and that the cost of voicing one's concerns is high.

This is not what most of us think of as loyalty, but the effect is the same. After all, it does consist of going along to remain part of the gang, or to keep one's position or authority. This common way to deal with a poor ethics environment is an internalization of the penalty an organization places on voice and, sometimes, exit. It is because this sort of internalization is so common that high-level government officials so rarely have to actually penalize any of their colleagues or subordinates, and can therefore focus on their opponents, whose allegations against them they can reject as "partisan" or "political."

Hirschman felt that loyalty can be good for voice, because it makes exit not so easy a choice. If one is stuck in an organization, and the organization is deteriorating, a loyal member of the organization has a greater reason to use his voice than someone who is not loyal and, therefore, can simply leave.

In theory, this is reasonable, and it does happen sometimes that individuals stay in office in the belief that their local government would get even worse if they left. But many of these individuals are fooling themselves (Hirschman wrote, "Usually this sort of reasoning is an ex-post ... justification of opportunism," but that there are times when it serves an important purpose, that is, when an official speaks out at the decisive moment). And the worse things get, the stronger one's feeling is that one is indispensable, that exiting will do more harm than staying put.

One of the most damaging roles an official can play, Hirschman noted, is "official dissenter," a member of the team who is effectively assigned the job of disagreeing with the majority view. This takes away the official's greatest weapon:  the threat to resign under protest and, thereby, make public what the government is trying to keep under wraps. An official dissenter agrees to keep the process secret, to play by the rules even if she opposes them.

When a local government's ethics environment is deteriorating, loyalty tends to consist of silence rather than voice. One problem is that most people's loyalty is to individuals rather than to the organization as a whole. This sort of loyalty allows an individual to remain silent when high-level officials put their personal interests ahead of the public interest, which is, in theory, the same as the organization's interest.

Hirschman did recognize this problem. He wrote that "it is possible for loyalty to overshoot the mark and thus to produce an exit-voice mix in which the exit option is unduly neglected. … It must be realized that loyalty-promoting institutions and devices are not only uninterested in stimulating voice at the expense of exit:  indeed they are often meant to repress voice alongside exit. … their short-run interest is to entrench themselves and to enhance their freedom to act as they wish, unmolested as far as possible by either desertions or complaints of members."

Hirschman also recognized that organization members "may have a considerable stake in self-deception, that is, in fighting the realization that the organization he belongs to ... [is] deteriorating."

On-and-Off Voice
Hirschman pointed out that, for citizens, it is not necessarily an either-or situation. Citizens do not have to be only active or inactive in local politics. In other words, just because they exit from participation doesn't mean they give up their voice. In fact, he argued, "a mixture of alert and inert citizens, or even an alternation of involvement and withdrawal, may actually serve democracy better than either total, permanent activism or total apathy." One reason for this is that "the ordinary failure, on the part of most citizens, to use their potential political resources to the full makes it possible for them to react with unexpected vigor—by using normally unused reserves of political power and influence—whenever their vital interests are directly threatened."

This may work with respect to national politics, but vital local interests are usually limited to taxes, basic services, and development issues. And when you stop participating in local government, it's hard to know what's going on. It doesn't receive the coverage, and local governments rarely have the transparency of national government.

Local government ethics is not a vital interest for anyone but good government groups, who usually have small memberships and, even among members, a much smaller core of activists who are usually permanent activists. Rarely do individuals go in and out of participation in ethics-related matters.

So where does one go with all these ideas? Hirschman pointed out one solution on page 42 of his book:
[O]nce voice is recognized as a mechanism with considerable usefulness for maintaining performance, institutions can be designed in such a way that the cost of individual and collective action would be decreased. Or, in some situations, the rewards for successful action might be increased for those who had initiated it. Often it is possible to create entirely new channels of communication...
In other words, once a local government acknowledges how damaging the exit of citizens is and how difficult the exit of officials and employees, it can focus on how to improve voice. It can make room for longer and more frequent public hearings and public comment periods, and make those hearings and periods available to the public on the community TV station and online. It can go out of its way to attract unconnected citizens to sit on its boards and commissions and, with respect to oversight boards, including ethics commissions, to have members selected not by government officials subject to their jurisdiction (can anyone imagine a police department citizen oversight board selected by the police chief?), but rather by community organizations. It can set up a hotline to make it easier for officials and employees, as well as citizens, to voice their concerns about ethical misconduct via anonymous complaints. And it can reward those who notify the ethics commission of ethics violations by recognizing them publicly (if they want this recognition), by a strong whistleblower provision, and by paying legal fees and other costs involved in filing complaints or dealing with retaliatory suits filed by angry officials.

This list of ways to increase voice and reward those who exercise it to the community's benefit include some of the reforms that high-level officials most often find objectionable. For example, according to a Chicago Sun-Times article this week, members of Chicago's council have expressed strong opposition to allowing the council's inspector general to investigate anonymous complaints. They are following their member on the ethics task force, who objected in his dissent to the task force's recommendation of allowing anonymous complaints that such a policy would “release a torrent of frivolous and spurious charges."

Another way to describe the effect of such a policy is that it would allow citizens, as well as officials and employees who have a great deal to lose by going public with information only they know, to voice their concerns. Yes, more charges would be made, and some of them would be false and many irrelevant to government ethics, but those false and irrelevant charges would be formally dismissed. Otherwise, the same charges would be made in newspapers and blogs, and there would be no formal process to dismiss them. They would never go past he-said-she-said. That is much more harmful to the public trust than a formal program in which an independent ethics commission dismisses complaints and sets the record straight.

Hirschman did not apply his ideas to government ethics, but he did apply them to other aspects of local government. Most interesting is how he applied his concept of voice and exit to public education. He argued that alternatives (now private, parochial, and charter schools, as well as home schooling) are forms of exit from the public education system, and they damage that system by removing the voices of those "who would be most motivated and determined to put up a fight against the deterioration" if they couldn't exit the system.

You don't have to go to any trouble to exit from a government ethics program. In fact, you don't even have to speak out in favor of creating one, or against destroying one. That's one reason why there are so few government ethics programs.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
[email protected]