making local government more ethical

A 27-page Introduction to Local Government Ethics!


Government ethics is one of the most misunderstood topics among local government officials and employees, government attorneys, ethics reformers, public administration students, journalists, and even ethics commission members.
Self-justification is an important element in ethical misconduct, cover-ups, and officials' public denials and explanations of conduct. It aids and abets our blind spots. It is a sign of weakness, anxiety, and fear more than of poor character

Self-justification is something each of us engages in. Sometimes we fight it, sometimes we effectively compromise with it, and sometimes we give in to it. The one thing most of us rarely do is think or talk openly about it.

Swiss writer Pascal Mercier's novel Perlmann's Silence, translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside (Atlantic, 2005, 2011), has some incredible passages about the self-justification process. They make great food for thought.

I thought that I had covered all the blind spots that wreak such havoc on local government ethics (see the section in my book Local Government Ethics Programs). But Dennis J. Moberg's essay, "Ethics Blind Spots in Organizations: How Systematic Errors in Person Perception Undermine Moral Agency" (Organization Studies 27(3):413–428 (2006)), raises some I haven't seen mentioned anywhere else.

Moberg's principal contribution to the area of ethics blind spots is his original use of the term "framing." While most talk about framing involves the communication of ideas to others, Moberg's frames are perceptual frames, that is, they involve the way we see rather than the way we communicate (although perceptual frames do also affect the way we communicate, since our perceptual limitations limit what we say to others).

"The deep problem with the system was a kind of moral inertia. So long as it served the narrow self-interests of everyone inside it, no one on the inside would ever seek to change it, no matter how corrupt or sinister it became — though even to use words like 'corrupt' or 'sinister' made serious people uncomfortable, so Katsuyama avoided them. Maybe his biggest concern, when he spoke to city residents, was that he be seen as just another nut with a conspiracy theory."

This seems like a classic description of the problem citizens have when they understand institutional corruption in a city government and try to get others to understand it. But I changed one term: "city residents" was actually "investors," and this is a quote from Michael Lewis's new book, Flash Boys, which was excerpted in this week's New York Times Magazine.

Reading this excerpt, about the way high-frequency traders took "advantage of loopholes in some well-meaning regulation introduced in the mid-2000s ... simply so someone inside the financial markets would know something that the outside world did not," kept making me think of institutional corruption in local governments. The biggest difference is that it is the local officials themselves who draft loophole-ridden, rules and regulations (or fail to fill the loophones, or simply follow unwritten rules). Even when the rules were originally "well-meaning," they often become the basis for unfair advantages given to certain contractors, developers, grantees, and regulated businesses that, in turn, provide benefits to the officials, their families, their businesses, and their business associates.

I just finished reading the classic political science book Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City by Robert A. Dahl (Yale University Press, 1961). It might have been the second time around, because I did take an Urban Politics course forty years ago. The book happens to focus on New Haven, the city in whose suburbs I live and whose public campaign financing program I used to administer.

Who governs? is a question that is too rarely asked by those involved in government ethics. It is assumed that the only individuals who should be under an ethics program's jurisdiction are those currently in government office or with a government job. Often excluded from jurisdiction are numerous individuals who may be very important to the management of the community, including former officials, candidates, consultants and hired professionals (including outside auditors), advisers, party officers, power brokers and fixers, bidders on contracts, grant and permit applicants, those who own and manage contractors that do government work, such as charter schools and waste management companies, and those who work for independent, semi-independent, and public-private offices, agencies, and authorities. All of these people should be included in a local government ethics program.

The draft of Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout's new essay, "The Forgotten Law of Lobbying," which will appear in Election Law Journal, looks at the history of how American courts have viewed lobbying. This history provides a valuable perspective on lobbying, making it more clear what it is about lobbyists that attracts bad feelings.

After all, when looked at in terms of First Amendment free speech and the redress of grievances, as recent court decisions have, lobbyists should be lionized as elves hard at work to make our democracy work. But, as Teachout shows, lobbyists were not seen in terms of the First Amendment until recently. And they were also seen not as elves, but as people corrupting our democratic system.