making local government more ethical

Zygmunt Bauman on Responsibility, Trust, Self-Deception, and More

Despite the title of his essay "What Chance of Ethics in the Globalized World of Consumers?" Zygmunt Bauman has some valuable things to say that are relevant to government ethics (the essay appears in his 2009 book, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? (Harvard University Press)).

The Purpose of Government Ethics
Bauman talks about the fact that the value of morality is not something that can be proven. It does not serve a purpose. People are not supposed to act morally in order to gain profit, financially or spiritually. This is another reason why government ethics is not simply being ethical in government. Government ethics has a clear purpose. It is intended to obtain the public's trust. It is intended to increase fairness and the appearance of fairness in a political system that cannot work if it is not seen to be fair.

Public Service as Being For
One thing Bauman notes is the distinction of being with, as part of a group for example, and being for, including for those who are not part of our group. He believes that our selves are born when we recognize that we exist for others, not merely with them. This distinction holds in public service as well, and the recognition of being for should be the central impetus toward dealing responsibly with our conflicts. But this recognition has to contend with the strong feelings of being with, of being part of and owing strong loyalties to those who are like us, our colleagues in our department or agency, in our profession, in our political party, in our local government.

Going Beyond the Guidelines
Bauman also notes that our society limits our experience of being for by creating requirements and prohibitions. This can be seen clearly in government ethics, where most officials and local government attorneys stop at the words in the ethics code, forgetting why they are there and that they are merely minimal requirements and prohibitions. We need to have clear guidelines, but we equally need to realize that our being for, in this case obtaining the public's trust, goes beyond these guidelines.

Freedom from Constraint and Responsibility
Bauman is especially struck by the way we are caught between the poles of freedom and responsibility. We seek freedom from constraint, and when we feel free, we seek freedom from responsibility. In government ethics, being responsible is the constraint, and it is a difficult burden for many people to shoulder. In historical terms, we are more free than we have ever been. But can anyone expect to be free from both constraint and responsibility?

Bauman believes that the concept of responsibility, which was formerly part of ethical duty, has "shifted to the realm of self-fulfillment and calculation of risks." Since self-fulfillment can run counter to the idea of putting the public interest ahead of personal interests, this can be a problem in government ethics. The idea of calculating risk depends on whose risks are being calculated, although in many cases jeopardy to public trust ends up jeopardizing the career of officials who do not deal responsibly with their conflicts. I recently wrote a blog post arguing that government ethics can be usefully seen as a form of managing risk. But it is the government's risk that should be managed, even though this might also benefit the official.

Distrust and Government Ethics Programs
Most serious for government ethics is Bauman's observation that "the world today seems to be conspiring against trust." The current transitional period in local government ethics is occurring during a time of distrust. More local governments have ethics scandals than have good, full-fledged ethics programs. There is more disclosure and access to damning information, but there is not more professional ethics guidance. And ethics training, when it exists, is still very limited. So there is more to instill distrust than there is to instill trust in local government officials. This makes it look like things are getting worse when the reality is that things are getting better, only too slowly and in far too few jurisdictions.

Internally, ethical decision-making is still not a regular, openly discussed part of very many local government organizations. And most officials are not attuned to government ethics. They do not understand it, and they feel it is a problem rather than a professional tool. They are not prepared to take the big step toward earning the public's trust. They are instead part of the movement toward distrust, which is extremely damaging to our democratic system. It leads to anger and an anti-government mentality that refuses to recognize that government is the way a community acts for the community, not the way to take something away from people. The responsible practice of government ethics is especially important during this transition period that is marked by public anger.

Late in the essay, Bauman discusses self-deception, and he seems to be talking about many politicians after they have been accused of unethical conduct. He refers to "the self-deception designed to disguise the genuine springs of action. For instance, the individual has too high an opinion of himself to tolerate the thought of having acted wrongly, and so imputation of an offense by [the accuser] is called for to deflect attention from his own misstep. We take satisfaction in being the wronged party ... and so we must invent wrongs to feed this self-indulgence. ... the other party ... is cast as the true actor in the drama. The self thereby stays wholly on the receiving side ..... [U]nmasking and discrediting the self-deception ... emerges ... as the preliminary, indispensable condition of giving free rein to ... the expression that manifests itself, first and foremost, in trust...."

Government Ethics and Persuasion
Finally, Bauman notes that the political and social coercion of the past has been increasingly replaced by seduction, or persuasion. This is an area where the government ethics world has been completely incompetent. There are some good training programs that seek to instill the values of government ethics, but our society as a whole has been almost untouched by government ethics. Few people know even the basic concepts. What they know is primarily how they feel, and much of what they see and hear is how government ethics can be used for narrow political purposes or to fuel scandals about government officials acting badly, rather than irresponsibly.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics