making local government more ethical

Aspirational Ethics Code

In detailing aspirational ethics -- that is, ethical conduct that will not be enforced by the Ethics Commission -- this Model Code goes a step beyond a declaration of policy and purpose. It includes the full text of the American Society for Public Administration's aspirational ethics code. Below is the ASPA Code and introductory comments about its inclusion in the Model Code.

Please comment on the value of including this aspirational code in an ethics code, and share any experience you have had with aspirational ethics codes.

There is more to ethical conduct than what is covered by this code, which consists primarily of enforceable rules about conflicts of interest. The city must also provide a healthy ethical environment with positive means of encouraging ethical behavior among its public servants. And individuals - especially community leaders - must commit themselves to thinking and acting ethically.

Ethical conduct depends on thinking about one's acts not in terms of what is politically popular, best for oneself and one's colleagues, or even most effective and efficient, but in terms of what is in the best interests of the city. Ethics is not just about enforceable rules, but also about democratic ideals and aspirational goals. Central to ethical action is respect for city residents (treating them as ends rather than as means) as well as self-respect (integrity, expecting the best of oneself).

There are expectations placed on those who govern and administer our city's government, there are values to which our city's officials and employees aspire, and there are obligations that our city's officials and employees accept when they take their jobs or offices. This is especially true of elected officials and department heads, because they have accepted more responsibility for the decisions that are made.

The American Society for Public Administration's (ASPA) Code of Ethics is an excellent list of a government administrator's obligations, based on values rather than job description. These are the obligations our government leaders should be reinforcing and to which individuals should be committing themselves. The ASPA Code is especially valuable because it is not the work of ethics specialists, but of government administrators themselves. These obligations will not be enforced by the Ethics Commission, because they are difficult to define concretely enough so that they can be enforced.* However, these values and obligations should be expected and aspired to in our city. Anyone who has questions about these values and obligations may seek clarification from the Ethics Commission as to how they apply them to specific situations.

The American Society for Public Administration's (ASPA) Code of Ethics is an excellent list of a government administrator's obligations, based on values rather than job description. These are the obligations our government leaders should be reinforcing and to which individuals should be committing themselves. The ASPA Code is especially valuable because it is not the work of ethics specialists, but of government administrators themselves. These obligations will not be enforced by the Ethics Commission, because they are difficult to define concretely enough so that they can be enforced.* However, these values and obligations should be expected and aspired to in our city. Anyone who has questions about these values and obligations may seek clarification from the Ethics Commission as to how they apply them to specific situations.

* Note that the ASPA code is intended for unelected administrators, so that the provision requiring nonpartisanship should not be applied to elected officials who belong to political parties. On the other hand, the most basic conflict of interest in government (accepted as it is by our democratic process) is between the public interest and the interest of elected officials in getting re-elected.



American Society for Public Administration

Code of Ethics


I. Serve the Public Interest

  • Exercise discretionary authority to promote the public interest.
  • Oppose all forms of discrimination and harassment, and promote affirmative action.
  • Recognize and support the public's right to know the public's business.
  • Involve citizens in policy decision-making.
  • Exercise compassion, benevolence, fairness, and optimism.
  • Respond to the public in ways that are complete, clear, and easy to understand.
  • Assist citizens in their dealings with government.
  • Be prepared to make decisions that may not be popular.

II. Respect the Constitution and the Law

  • Understand and apply legislation and regulations relevant to their professional role.
  • Work to improve and change laws and policies that are counterproductive or obsolete.
  • Eliminate unlawful discrimination.
  • Prevent all forms of mismanagement of public funds by establishing and maintaining strong fiscal and management controls, and by supporting audits and investigative activities.
  • Respect and protect privileged information.
  • Encourage and facilitate legitimate dissent activities in government and protect the whistle-blowing rights of public employees.
  • Promote constitutional principles of equality, fairness, representativeness, responsiveness, and due process in protecting citizens' rights.

III. Demonstrate Personal Integrity

  • Maintain truthfulness and honesty and not compromise them for advancement, honor, or personal gain.
  • Ensure that others receive credit for their work and contributions.
  • Zealously guard against conflict of interest or its appearance: e.g., nepotism, improper outside employment, misuse of public resources, or the acceptance of gifts.
  • Respect superiors, subordinates, colleagues, and the public.
  • Take responsibility for their own errors.
  • Conduct official acts without partisanship.

IV. Promote Ethical Organizations

  • Enhance organizational capacity for open communication, creativity, and dedication.
  • Establish procedures that promote ethical behavior and hold individuals and organizations accountable for their conduct.
  • Provide organization members with an administrative means for dissent, assurance of due process, and safeguards against reprisal.
  • Promote merit principles that protect against arbitrary and capricious actions.
  • Promote organizational accountability through appropriate controls and procedures.
  • Encourage organizations to adopt, distribute, and periodically review the code of ethics as a living document.

V. Strive for Professional Excellence

  • Provide support and encouragement to upgrade competence.
  • Accept as a personal duty the responsibility to keep up to date on emerging issues and potential problems.
  • Encourage others, throughout their careers, to participate in professional activities and associations. Allocate time to meet with students and provide a bridge between classroom studies and the realities of public service.
  • This code is enacted pursuant to [Section ____] of [state statutes] and is not intended to authorize any conduct prohibited by that section.

    Comment: It is helpful to list other municipal and state ethics-related laws here, or reference a supplement containing them, so that all ethics laws are available in one place. In this way, people will not have to search for them or worry if they have missed any rules or exceptions. It is also helpful for authors of ethics laws to consult all other relevant laws, so that there will not be any contradictions.

    Here are the citations in the Connecticut model code I wrote, including only references to state law: "The power to adopt an ethics code is provided in 7-148(c)(10)(b). There are some specific conflict of interest rules in 7-148t. Allegations, confidentiality, and probable cause findings are provided for in 1-82a. A business with which an official or employee is associated is defined in 1-79(b). And the Freedom of Information Act can be found in Chapter 14, 1-200 to 1-242."

    Why freedom of information? Because it involves one of the most often abused conflicts of interest: between the public's right to know and the municipal official's desire to keep information hidden, for personal or political reasons (it's much easier to do one's job in secret than in the public eye; it is especially easier to act unethically when acting in secret). In fact, it would be completely appropriate for a municipal ethics code to supplement the Freedom of Information Act in areas that have been problems in a particular city. For example, an ethics code could include longer notice requirements for meetings and agendas, shorter periods in which to provide information (as well as lower reproduction costs), and requirements for notice and the placement of information on the city website.

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