Does the "broken windows" theory, as first stated in a
1982 Atlantic essay
by George L. Kelling and James Q.
Wilson, apply to government ethics? The theory says that, if small
things like broken windows are ignored, people will think that no
one cares and, therefore, they will break more windows and move on
to more serious misconduct. It's about setting norms and sending
Forget the misuse of this theory in policing, where individuals are
arrested for small offenses, sending them into the criminal justice
system when they should not be. The focus of the theory was on
fixing windows, showing that people do care, and sending the message
that good conduct is the community norm.
Isn't this what a good local government ethics program is supposed
to do: try to prevent and fix the small instances of ethical
misconduct through training, advice, and disclosure, so that the big
ones don't happen? A good ethics officer should dispose of reports
and complaints of minor misconduct and misconduct that isn't covered
by the ethics code by talking with the official and trying to get
her to understand why what she is alleged to have done (whether or
not she actually did it, whether or not there is an enforceable rule involved)
might be harmful to the government organization and the community if
it were to become (or remain) common.