making local government more ethical

Ethics Commission Community Outreach

Community outreach is usually toward the bottom of a local government ethics commission's priority list.

Googling one thing or another, I came across this memo from the executive director of the Oakland Public Ethics Commission, which includes an invitation to members of the press, government, and community groups to come to an EC "retreat" to share with EC members their views on how the EC can do a better job. The invitation specifies discussion topics, but leaves the discussion open-ended, as well.

What a refreshing idea! Too often people assume that if the community has something to say, citizens will come to meetings and make themselves heard. But this is only true when there are timely and controversial issues. Ethics commissions often meet irregularly, and when there is not a scandal afoot, no outsiders attend. EC members work practically in a vacuum.

It is both useful and gracious to extend invitations to specific individuals and groups, and to bring them together for an occasion where they are the stars. It might not work -- few people may attend. But at least you would have tried. And as with conflicts, the appearance of being open to ideas and criticism from the community is important to developing trust and legitimacy.

Another approach is to write to individuals and groups, asking for their written input. But few will respond, primarily interest groups, particularly good government groups.

Another approach is to interview people one by one. This can be very effective, but it is very time-consuming, and it does not allow for the sort of dialogue and brainstorming that a group discussion can provide. A group event also provides an opportunity for ethics training of the press, officials, and good government and other community groups.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics