making local government more ethical

Being Wrong I (Summer Reading)

It's arguable that a bigger problem than unethical conduct in local government is the way local officials respond to allegations of government ethics violations. Kathryn Schulz's excellent book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (2010), provides perspective on some of the ways officials respond to such allegations and some of the ways they can better handle their mistakes. This is the first in a series of summer reading posts that will, I hope, give you a number of new perspectives on local government ethics.

Being Wrong does not deal with the full range of responses to allegations of unethical conduct, because officials often do not consider ethics allegations to be about their being wrong, but about their being bad. In other words, there are two meanings involved here that both go by the name of "wrong": making the wrong decision (adjective) and acting wrong (adverb). Being Wrong only deals with the adjective.

Since it is difficult to know how conscious an official is of his conduct, and since in government ethics this is irrelevant to anything but possibly the penalty, one is required to assume that the wrong decision was made, that the official was not dealing responsibly with a conflict, not that the official was consciously being bad. So Being Wrong and government ethics are on the same page when it comes to wrongness.

Fallibility is a funny thing. We get enormous pleasure out of being right, even though we always feel we're right. And finding out we're wrong can feel calamitous, as if it goes to the core of who we are. Here's a wonderful quote from Schulz that sums this feeling up (and it is a feeling, no matter how much we focus on "the facts"):
    If fallibility is built into our very name and nature, it is in much the same way the puppet is built into the Jack-in-the-Box:  in theory wholly predictable, in practice always a jarring surprise. In this respect, fallibility is something like mortality, another trait that is implicit in the word "human." As with dying, we recognize erring as something that happens to everyone, without feeling that is either possible or desirable that it will happen to us. Accordingly, when mistakes happen anyway, we typically respond as if they hadn’t, or as if they shouldn’t have:  we deny them, wax defensive about them, ignore them, downplay them, or blame them on somebody else.
Fallibility might be like a Jack-in-the-Box, but the ways officials deal with their ethical misconduct is anything but unexpected. It's so often just as Schulz describes it:  denial, defensiveness, downplaying, blaming, and acting as if nothing happened and nothing was said.

So, are government officials just like everyone else? No, it is harder for those in positions of authority to accept their fallibility. Schulz quotes celebrity divorce lawyer Raoul Felder as saying, “people believe in their own infallibility in a ratio that’s consistent with their power in life. As you get higher, you get more and more people around you saying you’re right, you get less and less used to being contradicted or being wrong.”

The Effects of One's Surroundings
Government organizations are also known for their groupthink. People are naturally hesitant to disagree with those around them, what Schulz calls the "disagreement deficit.” Studies have shown that we not only believe what those around us believe, but that we even see things as those around us see them. When those around us are not ordinary colleagues, but party and faction colleagues, for whom loyalty is so important, the disagreement deficit is even stronger.

With respect to government ethics, this sort of usually unconscious conformity strengthens, for better or worse, a city or county's ethics environment, a culture that determines more than any single factor the quantity and quality of unethical conduct.

Schulz writes about the four ways in which we are limited by our communities, that is, our workplaces, circle of friends, political parties, etc. “First, our communities expose us to disproportionate support for our own ideas. Second, they shield us from the disagreement of outsiders. Third, they cause us to disregard whatever outside disagreement we do encounter. Finally, they quash the development of disagreement from within. ... Whatever the other virtues of our communities, they are dangerously effective at bolstering our conviction that we are right and shielding us from the possibility that we are wrong.”

Vive La Différence
But there is one big difference when it comes to government organizations. Government officials have an obligation to consider all ideas and views in their city or county, as well as ideas from the outside that would be helpful, but which citizens without the time or expertise to focus on specific problems would have no knowledge of. For example, an official may feel that he learned everything he needs to know about government ethics from his parents and his religion, and his colleagues may agree with him, but he still has an obligation to listen to what others (such as good government organizations) say, and see how people in other jurisdictions feel and what others have done. And why.

Local government officals may deny, downplay, and blame with the best of them, but these other people do not represent their community. They only represent themselves. This is why it is so important that local government officials understand the dynamics that occur when they are wrong and when they feel infallible.

It is human to err. It is even human to feel infallible. But a local government official has an obligation to recognize this feeling of infallibility and to recognize that, while it might be okay for a king or a pope, it is not okay for a community leader in a democracy.

The second post on Being Wrong will look at ways in which local government officials can better prevent mistakes, including ethics violations.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics