making local government more ethical

Blind Spots VII — Indirect Blindness and Moral Compensation

I've noted on several occasions that indirect conflicts are among the most problematic areas in government ethics. Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It, a new book by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel (Princeton University Press), looks into some of the psychological aspects of the indirectness problem. The authors' analysis is especially relevant to the use of charities to get around gift and campaign finance limits, the use of many kinds of organizations, from PACs to independent associations, to get around campaign finance laws, as well as issues involving an official's law firm.

Indirect Blindness
The authors talk about a tendency they call "indirect blindness ... the tendency not to notice unethical actions when people do their dirty work through the behavior of others."
    Even when data suggesting unethical intent is obvious, we still let those who behaved unethically off the hook. ... The public and the press too often fail to notice the dirty work that individuals and organizations perform through intermediaries. … By engaging in indirect action under predictable circumstances, decision makers trigger indirect blindness in the eyes of observers and thus are let off the hook for the harm they cause.
In government ethics, the public often recognizes that something is wrong, but they don't know whom to blame, whom to hold accountable. They don't know how to deal with the fact that the conduct is legal. Indirect unethical conduct raises the complexity of a situation, fogging up our view of its ethical aspects.

Side-by-Side Evaluation
The authors point out a valuable way to deal with indirect blindness:  side-by-side or joint evaluation. What they have found is that we normally look at real-world actions one at a time, and that, separately evaluated, even with great transparency, participants in their experiments viewed indirect action as less unethical than direct action.

Evaluating one or more instances of conduct "leads to more reflective and rational assessments."

This is another argument that shows the value of open discussion of ethics matters in a local government organization. We cannot deal effectively with one news story at a time, taken in isolation. It is important to compare a particular situation to other situations which have, say, one different element. For example, a situation where a contractor has given a large contribution to a mayor's favorite charity can be compared to situations where a contractor has given a large gift to the mayor's mother, hired the mayor's brother-in-law, or redone the mayor's kitchen. People can see that in each case the mayor benefited, but in different ways. Discussion can focus on the different ways an official can benefit from different sorts of gifts, and to what extent these different ways of benefitting should be dealt with in terms of government ethics.

These are the sorts of discussions that should be held by those drafting ethics codes, but no one can think of every possible instance when they are looking at an entire code. There is nothing like a concrete case to focus a discussion.

This blog provides a good resource for finding different scenarios to compare.

Moral Compensation
It's worth noting here the authors' research shows that "people are more likely to cheat on ... tasks if they are earning money for charity than earning money for themselves. … Focus on the good work they achieve appears to provide these leaders with an excuse to engage in dishonesty with the goal of raising more funds for the good causes."

They also argue that "we each maintain a moral identity that we keep in balance by engaging in minor, compensatory moral behaviors." That is, when we help a charity, we feel we have the right to act a little less ethically.

The authors feel that this mechanism, which they call "moral compensation," can make disclosure alone an ineffective means of preventing unethical conduct. "Not only did disclosure requirements fail to achieve their assumed objectives, they can actually have perverse effects on ethical behavior. … The goal of transparency is a rational one, yet it results in unintended consequences when we fail to account for the psychological process of moral compensation. ... The opportunity to behave morally by disclosing a conflict of interest seems to give people a license to engage in future immoral behavior (inflated estimates, in this case) and therefore to maintain the moral equilibrium."

The principal form of moral compensation in local government is the feeling some officials have that they have given so much to their community, for so little pay in return, that they deserve something for themselves and their family. This has probably justified more unethical and criminal conduct by local government officials than anything else.

The authors feel that the best way to deal with other kinds of moral compensation is for leaders to "communicate to employees that unethical behavior is distinct and separate from ethical behavior and ... set a separate standard for the two." This is an unusual remedy in government ethics. One form of it might be the creation of separate enforceable and aspirational ethics codes, as in the City Ethics Model Code, where the enforceable code is supplemented by the American Society for Public Administration's code of ethics, a tried and true aspirational code. This way, prohibitions of unethical conduct appear alongside positive descriptions of ethical conduct, even if most of that ethical conduct lies outside the bounds of government ethics itself.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics