making local government more ethical

Winter Reading: Switch I - Situational Forces

There is a great deal of thought-provoking material in Chip and Dan Heath's book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Crown, 2010). Change has proved hard in every single city and county in the United States. Those seeking government ethics reform can learn a lot from this book.

There are two different types of change involved in government ethics. One involves ethics reform, a local government's change toward instituting an effective, independent ethics program. The second type of change is each official's movement toward dealing responsibly with his and his colleagues' conflict situations.

In the next several blog posts, I will apply some of the Heaths' ideas to both types of change.

Changing the Situation, Not the Person
One of the most valuable aspects of this book for government ethics is its authors' recognition of how important situational factors are to how people act. "What looks like a person problem is often a situation problem," the Heaths write. It's almost as if the Heaths were talking about how local officials view government ethics, that is, as a person rather than a situation problem. They talk in terms of character and integrity, and they focus on ethics enforcement against individuals, not changing the government's culture.

The tendency of Americans especially to see things as a person problem can be seen everywhere in our culture. A person who is given a huge bucket of popcorn becomes gluttonous, but it is not useful to call him a glutton. Someone who is late for an appointment drives crazily, but is not a crazy driver. If you try to change the person rather than the situation, you will fail.

You may laugh at the thought that government ethics violations are a form of overeating based on there being too much money to spread around to contractors and grantees. Although this is true, this is not something that can be changed. What you can do, however, is create an environment where ethics issues are discussed just like financial issues, and where everyone, from subordinates to attorneys to contractors, feels responsible for disclosing relationships and ownership interests (and where they don't  fear retaliation when they disclose something about somebody else). What you can do is create an ethics program that provides professional ethics training and advice. And then, guess what? Without changing government officials at all, from just changing their environment, they'll stop overeating ... I mean, there won't be more than the rare ethics violation.

The Fundamental Attribution Error
Lee Ross, in his book The Person and the Situation, calls our tendency to ignore situational forces "the Fundamental Attribution Error." "The error lies in our inclination to attribute people's behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in," write the Heaths. And understanding this, they recommend changing the situation to make change work. They call this "shaping the path," removing the friction from the path toward the destination of the change.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is one of the biggest obstacles to creating a good government ethics program. When you think of everything in terms of an official's character, then the only thing you can do is punish the bad apples.

Ethics Environments
When you recognize that people look to their environment for cues about how to act, and you think in terms of changing the cues from the environment, the choices open up. You can train officials, because they're not simply good or bad, but individuals who aren't getting the right cues about handling conflict situations. You can provide them with advice, so they'll be able to do the right thing. You can have department heads and board chairs ask whether anyone has a conflict whenever there is a new matter. And most of all, you can try to create a healthy ethics environment, where ethics issues are discussed openly at meetings, where everyone realizes that it is his responsibility to the community to prevent ethical misconduct, where every department looks at its processes to find places where discretion, loopholes, and lack of oversight create temptations for ethical misconduct, and where leaders come down hard on any sign of intimidation. In this sort of ethics environment, it's hard not to do the right thing.

The Heaths quote former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner as saying, "I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn't just one aspect of the game—it is the game." Every local government has an ethics environment, and that environment plays a larger role than anything else in how each official and employee handles conflict situations. To change the way officials act and to bring about government ethics reform, the ethics environment must be taken into account. An ethics program that is imposed on a poor ethics environment is not likely to be effective. A program has to be comprehensive and powerful enough, and have the support of both high-level leadership and the leadership of boards and agencies, to change the ethics environment for the better.

Tradition and Social Status
One of the Heaths' case studies deals with the problem of interns working such long hours that they make mistakes and are inefficient. Even when they are prohibited from working such long hours, they continue to do so. Why? Because of the environment they work in. One intern is quoted as saying, "It sounds sick, but these people are like my family. The worst thing would be not to be respected by these guys." Interns also note that, since the residents and doctors put in the time as interns, it would be unfair for them not to. It's a matter of tradition and social status. These are powerful elements indeed, elements that few government ethics programs are designed to change.

In a local government with a poor ethics environment, loyalty is the most powerful feeling. This too involves social status and tradition. If officials have in the past said and done nothing about officials who misuse their office for their own benefit (except after a scandal), then it's almost impossible for new officials to do so. A young official who thinks of speaking about another official's conflict situation worries about breaking from tradition and about being ostracized. Her career may even be over. And all by sticking her nose in where it doesn't belong (as people say when loyalty overrides one's fiduciary duty to the public and one's responsibility to preserve the government's reputation).

The unspoken rules have to be changed in order to change an ethics environment. The Heaths have a wonderful term for what needs to happen:  "organizational molting." Officials and employees need to know that they are required to report ethical misconduct and expected to speak up when it appears a colleague or even a supervisor is about to mishandle a conflict situation.

Click here to read the other six blog posts on Switch.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics