making local government more ethical

Understanding the Need for a Government Ethics Program

In a blog post two weeks ago, I welcomed an excellent, although sketchy, set of recommendations by a national law firm that amounted to a recommendation for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to set up a full-fledged ethics program.

According to an article in the Washington Post last weekend, WMATA's governance committee discussed the recommendations a week ago today. Some of the members questioned whether there was a need to revisit the ethics code only a year after it was revised. One member said the board should tread carefully with respect to sanctions.

Then a Post editorial on Wednesday effectively gave the WMATA board permission to ignore many of the report's most valuable ethics recommendations:  "it’s not clear that a separate, and possibly costly, ethics committee is the most desirable solution."

The Post editorial board is sadly typical of the news media, politicians, and many good government groups dealing with government ethics reform. If there's an inspector general, they often feel that's enough. They don't understand the difference between what inspectors general and ethics commissions do, or recognize how much less expensive a government ethics program is than criminal enforcement.

The work of ethics commissions and inspectors general do not overlap; they are complementary. An ethics commission and its staff provide training, independent advice, oversight of disclosure, and enforcement with respect to officials' conflicts of interest, all things an inspector general does not provide. An inspector general's office might do investigations for the ethics commission, but that is its only role in government ethics. Its focus is on other things, such as investigating fraud and waste.

In addition, people do not seem to recognize that an ethics code is only one part of a government ethics program. Without training, independent advice, oversight of disclosure, and enforcement (yes, with sanctions), an ethics code is a document that is generally not understood and not followed, at least not correctly.

A government ethics program is not necessary because officials are bad. It is necessary because officials, like newspapers, need guidance to deal responsibly with conflict of interest situations. It is more important to prevent the irresponsible handling of conflict of interest situations (and the scandals this leads to, and the public distrust that follows) than to investigate and enforce, although this is sometimes necessary.

What made the ethics recommendations to WMATA so special is that the firm that made them did understand the difference between an ethics code and an ethics program. WMATA board members most likely do not. If they do not recognize this difference, they will not have an effective ethics program, and little will change with respect to the handling of its officials' conflicts.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics