making local government more ethical

The Don't Ask, Don't Tell Approach to Ethics

In a long and very important article in today’s New York Times about the conflicts of interest of so-called television and radio network military analysts, one analyst says that the network he works for asked few questions about analysts’ outside business interests, the nature of their work, or the potential of that work to create conflicts of interest.

“The worst conflict of interest was no interest,” he said.

Hiring military analysts who work for military contractors and whose writing is vetted by Pentagon officials is such a serious conflict of interest that the networks just didn’t want to know how bad it was. What you don’t know won’t hurt you.

Until it comes out, that is. If you don’t ask the right questions and insist on full responses, then you are equally responsible for the conflicts of interest. You are telling people with conflicts that it’s okay to have them, as long as they keep them to themselves. Don’t ask, don’t tell. It works for gays in the military, why not for network analysts?

The worst conflict of interest is no interest. This is true at any level of government. If you don’t want to know, you are responsible. If you don’t want an independent and effective ethics system, if you don’t want full disclosure, then you want there to be conflicts and you are telling people with conflicts that it is okay to have them, it is okay to pursue personal interests while acting as though you are working in the public interest.

Don’t ask, don’t tell is the default setting for municipal ethics. And it’s the worst conflict of interest there is, because it allows all the other conflicts to exist and remain hidden.