making local government more ethical

A Reminder About Ethical Reminders

Dan Ariely, an economist at M.I.T., made up a test that is easy to cheat on, in order to see how social situations might affect students’ choices whether to actually cheat or not. As described in his new book, Predictably Irrational, he found that students who had been asked to recall the Ten Commandments did not cheat at all. Reminders of other moral codes, such as a non-existent honor code, had a similar effect.

This is hardly surprising, but it’s a good occasion to think what this means in terms of government ethics.

In a government bureaucracy, how often are there reminders about the city's ethics code? A few cities require posters on the wall that summarize basic elements of the ethics code, but posters quickly become little more than wallpaper. Some cities require officials to sign an annual disclosure statement, or to read the ethics code and acknowledge in writing that they’ve read it. This is a good reminder, but it’s just once a year. Some cities require relevant ethics code provisions to appear in every contract, reminding contractors that conflicts must be disclosed, etc. But how prominent or readable are they? And a few cities require annual refresher courses in ethics.

Every time an official participates in a decision, he or she is reminded, sometimes explicitly, but always implicitly, about such values as efficiency, workability, loyalty, and professionalism. Is this the best solution? Can we get everyone on board?

But how often are there even implicit reminders of such values as accountability (outside of upcoming elections), transparency, and working in the public rather than private or organizational interest? How often do officials ask one another, Should you even be discussing this? Should we talking about this in secret?

There are ways to keep reminding ourselves about conflict of interest rules. A very short ethics-oriented e-mail (practical, not preachy) could be sent out to all officials and employees every other morning. Managers could be encouraged to bring up one relevant ethical issue at each meeting, in the form of a question rather than a lecture. People could be asked not to shy away from questioning whether someone should participate in conversations where there might be a conflict of interest. When this is seen not as rude, but as a way of protecting the organization, it is much easier to do, even if the person in question is a superior. The inclusion of references to conflicts and transparency in speeches given by elected officials and city managers is also helpful in letting everyone know that these issues are as important as delivering services.

Everyone needs to be reminded of ethical rules, not just because they’re often not fully understood, but because there are so many pressures placed on doing things by the book, and the book is not primarily an ethical book. Students have similar pressures to achieve and to conform. Regular ethical reminders can offset these pressures, and change what it means to achieve and conform in a local government organization.