making local government more ethical

Mandatory Local Government Ethics Training in Massachusetts Is Not Being Warmly Greeted

Update: November 13, 2009 (see below)

Massachusetts has been very busy reforming its ethics laws. Most of the reforms involve the increase of penalties, plugging loopholes, banning gifts, and increasing the authority of the state ethics commission, which has jurisdiction over local government officials and employees. Highlights of the reform bill can be found in an Associated Press article and on the Compliance Building blog.

It's notable that neither highlights page mentions the requirement that all local government officials and employees, as well as many contractors, are now required to acknowledge receipt of a summary of the ethics code and to take an online ethics training course. Even though nothing in government ethics is more important than training, it usually takes a back seat to prohibitions and enforcement.

The training program is described in detail here. The most interesting part of the program is the creation of a new position, the municipal liaison to the state ethics commission (for some reason, counties don't get liaisons), an administrator appointed by the local legislative body and responsible for distributing ethics code summaries and keeping track of as well as reporting on summary receipt acknowledgments. But despite the creation of this new position, too many tasks are given to the town or city clerk, who has many other, "more important" things to focus on. This is a weakness of the program.

The online training course has not yet been adapted for local officials and employees, but anyone (including you) can take it, at least as of now. Local officials and employees have until April to take the one-hour course, which appears to be more quiz than course (the summary, which provides examples, is more like a short course). Municipal liaisons are encouraged to hold group training sessions, making use of the online course if they choose (there is no indication whether the group sessions may ignore the online course and what they may put in its place).

It's clear that the state legislature tread carefully in creating these requirements, knowing that municipal response would not be warm. Even so, the Massachusetts Municipal Association says on its website that it "voiced serious concerns regarding the financial implications of this new requirement and has contacted the state auditor’s office requesting an analysis and determination as to whether the legislation imposes an unfunded mandate on cities and towns, which is prohibited by state law."

The MMA would clearly be happy to have no ethics training rather than a free online course created by the state. Taking one hour or so every two years for ethics training, as opposed to all the other training local officials and employees get without any complaints from municipal organizations, is clearly too much for a city or town to bear.

Even more antagonistic to the training requirement is an op-ed piece by a "volunteer" in the Cape Cod Times. The volunteer starts his diatribe with the usual criticisms of ethics reform:  "The new Massachusetts law regarding conflict of interest law for municipal employees and the mandatory training program will cause the local governments to lose many volunteers and add significantly to taxes of the residents of the state."

Then he goes a step further, calling the reforms "an outright insult to all civic-minded volunteers in Massachusetts." He goes on to say that "signing a piece of paper every two years to prove that a person is still honest and trustworthy is playing a child's game. ... Those who choose to be unethical or corrupt will do so regardless of the signed piece of paper."

The volunteer feels that "good ethics should be demonstrated by our leaders and Legislature first. Then worry about the local government committee, board and commission volunteers."

I quote this op-ed at length because its attitude is so typical. First, it confuses government ethics with being a good, ethical person. And although it supports prosecuting bad, corrupt officials (who are always, in its mind, at the state level), it doesn't understand the value of providing guidance to all the other officials, volunteer or otherwise. Essentially, it's confused and takes ethics provisions personally.

Government ethics isn't personal, it's not insulting, and ethics training is itself a form of ethical leadership, an insistence that guidance is required in government ethics just as it is in other aspects of government.

Update: November 13, 2009
According to an article in today's Telegram & Gazette, the mayor of Gardner, Mass. is having fits about the state's ethics training requirement. Here's some of what he said:

“This is a complete waste of time, a complete waste of resources. ... You would be better off having all the employees sign a sheet of paper acknowledging they are aware of the ethics law,” he said, adding that the way the training is set up, no one can fail it. "The computer will not let them answer questions wrong. [It's a training course, not an SAT] Taking online training or signing a piece of paper does not make someone more ethical. If they are going to steal $10,000 from the government, they will."

The mayor said he took the course, but he is proof not that an online course can't make someone ethical, but that an online course can't make a pigheaded mayor understand what government ethics is and how it differs from criminal law. Sounds like he needs to take it again, this time with his full attention and an open mind. It won't make him more ethical, but it might help him deal responsibly with conflicts of interest.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics