making local government more ethical

"Perception of Impropriety"

I am interested in getting some feedback on this point:
In a recent incident, there was perhaps no legal issue, but there was an undeniable perception that something unethical had occurred. What are your views on the thin red line between these points (i.e. "legal" and "perceived as unethical")

Should we try to step up to the plate and keep to the high moral ground where we even avoid the perception of unethical behaviour ?

How can we do this without moving far from what the average elected official can think with ?

Any thought/comments are welcome.

Robert Wechsler says:

Here are my notes on Peter W. Morgan and Glenn H. Reynolds'' The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Govt, Business, and Society (Free Press, 1997), which takes a strong view against using the appearance of impropriety as a principle.

'T]here are worse things than a country that gives birth to swindlers''for example, a land in which no one can be swindled because no one trusts anyone else.' (xi); when we''re always on guard, we''re distrustful and we thereby engender distrust; the costs of vigilance can outweigh the benefits

Focus of Book: on attempt to bolster public confidence by looking how ethical or unethical things appear ('appearance ethics'): on appearances (of conduct and of enforcement) and procedures; explosion of ethics rules has not produced confidence, but has helped journalists (scandals to write about), interest groups (that seek ethics rules), ethics consultants, and political operatives (who try to screw each other via ethics investigations)

'Insanity consists of doing the same damned thing over and over again, while expecting a different result' ''Anonymous (1)

[Is appearance of impropriety, except for judges, aspirational or illegal? In general, I think it''s aspirational, but the concept is exploited and abused for political purposes. It''s definitely good policy to consider how things look and decide not to do something for that reason, because appearances do matter, even if conduct is legal. To condemn the idea based on its abuse would be to condemn liberty, justice, and the American way...]

[It''s true that many people think that ethical rules are just for show, but this isn''t about appearance of impropriety, this is about using rules as band-aids over big wounds they can''t come close to covering, and were never meant to; again, it''s an abuse of ethics rules to pass partial ones without any discipline, etc., as is self-policing, that is, as it usually is, abused, intended to prevent true policing; or having the structure, but underbudgeting so there is no enforcement '' but that isn''t the goal of ethics-oriented interest groups; however, they certainly don''t go far enough, mainly because they know more stringent proposals would be ignored or rejected]

'A story of institutional breakdown and failure to take moral responsibility''a story of the substitution of appearances for substance, of technicalities for judgment, of opportunism for self-discipline.' (6)

Often critic of appearances of impropriety is more unethical than his victim [this possibility exists in any accusation of unethical behavior; the big question is how you can prevent ethics from being used as political football and being defended against for the same reason, so that there is more denial and false attacks than true concern for ethical reasoning? But wouldn''t everyone want to look ethical despite language in ethics codes, as long as ethics at some level is expected, as opposed to days when bosses could just be bosses?]

Codes of professional ethics followed on Black Sox scandal of 1919, starting with judicial ethics, because Commissioner Landis was a federal district judge; then Watergate led to institutionalization of appearance ethics [and the whole gamut]; in 1969 ABA model code classified appearance of impropriety (AOI) as something to aspire to, not a rule, and then dumped it altogether in 1983, but they applied it to others; but AOI began for fed employees under Kennedy (financial conflicts), but really took off with Ethics in Govt Act of 1978

Authors take us back to 18thc England, when it was considered important for success to have a good reputation, to seem ethical, and says this is true today; all about disguising passions, dissembling [but isn''t that central to our TV/publicity-conscious culture, not to ethics laws?! In 18thc, there was only a small circle of people who cared, and they were known to each other; so certainly true that it is more important to conceal vices than cultivate virtues, but when has it ever been important for the powerful to cultivate virtues beyond warrior ones?]

'Convoluted ethical systems ... actively sort for individuals who are so determined to acquire power, or adoration ... that they will endure just about anything to get it.' (24) [yes, the devious win, but not only the ethically devious; part of the package]

Daniel Boorstin: our distrust of others'' motives heightened by Marx and Freud, who see ec and psych motives behind everything; we see bias behind every position, and with bias impropriety [and why not?!}

In business world, appearance is as important as reality [yes, because it''s what affects the bottom line; in politics, it''s getting elected '' similar, but not about AOI]

'We cannot fix what we cannot see.' And admins are hiding facts so they look good [serious problem, why honesty is so important a value, yet ignored in ethics codes because it''s so hard to say whether someone is telling a falsehood or is just ignorant or wrong; why can''t we require not truth, but correction and apology?!]; nothing written down, negative assessments stricken from reports, off the books operations

Reform often an image itself rather than a reality, without difficult structural change, with grave pronouncements, lots of regulations, but never dealing with fundamental problems or never providing supervision or enforcement = cover-up [not appearances, but presenting anything as a full solution; that''s a con game]; lots of detailed rules to follow, and people do, but still effectively do what they were doing before, just with more care and wasted time [argument for having, for example, no gifts accepted at all; no reason for it, except from immediate family, even for children or spouse; part of being in govt]

Proxmire on fellow senators: 'good moral people [who] are sincerely, honestly hypnotized by a system of thinly concealed bribery that not only buys their attention but frequently buys their vote.' (34); uses image of pitcher handing umpire a wad of bills before a game: 'the game is fixed'

'Real ethics reform ... attacks root causes ... a meaningful debate as to which sorts of private influences are acceptable and which are not.' (35)

They feel that motive is 'the primary ethical referent' (36) [yes, but hard to put your finger on, and impossible to prove

Trust in govt has fallen since Watergate, from trusting it to do the right thing 76% of the time in 1964, to 25% of the time in 1995; applies to all insts but the armed forces

[The drunk looking for lost coin under street lamp because lighter there is applicable to ethics laws: take the easy stuff everyone deals with rather than looking at all the possibilities and approaches, and the tougher things, like teaching people how to reason ethically]

'One who analyzes another''s motives ... faces several risks. One is the risk of error ... An even greater risk is the pot-and-kettle problem.' (43) [The third should be that questioning another''s motives publicly, without evidence, is considered especially personal and often leads to libel suits. People who question others'' motives publicly are not respected. But privately, it''s true, we talk about motives all the time. It''s a question of responsibility '' responsible people, it is generally thought, do not question others'' motives without good evidence, and it''s hard to get good evidence, unless a murder investigation is done; it''s always circumstantial otherwise]

Professional rules involve artificial distinctions and often are hypocritical, and professional students have a knowing cynicism toward these rules, and this is taught to them [was to me], an attitude they take into positions of influence (45) [good point and good argument against mediocre rules, as well as self-enforcement or limited enforcement, which also supports a we-can-get-away-with-anything attitude]

Getting caught for appearances also good for perpetrators, because their sins look less serious

'Credibility gap' was at first a play on 'missile gap,' used with respect to Johnson misstatement during the Vietnam War; Colin Powell called Vietnam a 'conspiracy of illusion' [and this led to a hatred of hypocrisy, especially as it coincided with what young people saw as their parents'' hypocrisy; and this led to a concern for true ethics, not for appearances, but undermined by other forces]

[Can''t do ethics work to make 'us' look good = absolutely the wrong motive; or even to respond to scandals that are criminal rather than ethical; have to want to be better, to learn to think and act ethically, to expand one''s professional tools]

Idea of prof ethics, according to Peter Drucker, goes against general view that there is only one ethics, and implies that professionals aren''t bound by normal standards but by specialized, complicated rules

Ethics prosecutions: 'any positive message that might be communicated is frequently drowned out by charges that the prosecution does not represent the rule of law, but rather mere politics disguised as law.' (159) [Problem with ethics board proceedings, as well '' most are seen as, and are, politically motivated. Because without protections, what employee would turn anyone in?]

Change from 'crunchy' systems, where poor performance is immediately noticeable, to 'soggy' systems, where the connection between performance and reward or punishment is broken; 'Human nature being what it is, most leaders ... seek the easy way out. Unless feedback corrects ineffective actions, the wrong procedures become standard.' (187), true also of ethical conduct

Authors'' recommendations: encourage the reporting of bad news inside organizations, about things that aren''t working; keep things crunchy, make people accountable (e.g., phone number to call on back of trucks); limit appearance ethics to the judiciary and get away from technicalities in ethics leg, and ethics rules should not be based o filling out forms or on appearances, but on likelihood that, e.g., someone will be influenced by a gift; always ask what accusers have to gain, as well, as pol activists are very soggy; don''t call virtuous people chumps; be a virtuous person, not just do right things, because anyone can make an excuse for doing something bad, but a virtuous person would feel bad

Going beyond my notes, I feel that AOI is an important aspirational goal, because it is central to trust. The more municipal officials appear to be in it for themselves, ignoring conflicts of interest, deceiving, manipulating, intimidating, etc., whether or not there is a conflict that can be proven before an ethics commission, the more citizens will lose confidence in them, and the less citizens will want to be involved in government, because they feel they will make no difference because the deck is stacked against them. But it is very difficult to legislate against appearances, because it''s in the eye of the beholder. I''ve seen people attacked for improprieties they haven''t committed, creating the appearance without the act. Therefore, AOI must be aspirational, but taken seriously. It''s part of the problem of legislating ethics and not taking unlegislated ethics seriously.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics

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