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.
An essay of mine has appeared in the new issue of the journal Public Integrity, a special issue entitled "Changing of the Guard: The 75th American Society for Public Administration Anniversary Symposium: Visions and Voices of Ethics in the Profession" (Fall 2014, Vol. 16, No. 4). Since the journal is published commercially, I am not permitted to share my essay with you. So I will do the next best thing:  review it and expand on what I wrote (without all the details and the academy-speak I was required to employ).

The title of the essay is "Missing Out: The Consequences of Academic Noninvolvement in the Reform of Government Conflicts of Interest Programs." The abstract is as follows:
When it comes to the reform of government conflicts of interest programs in the United States, everyone has been missing out due to the noninvolvement of academics. This paper seeks to explain the reasons for this noninvolvement, to consider the consequences, and to suggest what can be done.
I just finished reading a masterpiece of a novel about Nuoro, a town in Sardinia:  Salvatore Satta's The Day of Judgment, translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh. It's a very wise, witty, and sad novel. Here are a few pearls of wisdom that shed light on local government ethics.

Although twenty years old and about the state level, Alan Rosenthal's The Third House: Lobbyists and Lobbying in the States (CQ Press, 1993) provides valuable food for thought about lobbying at the local level. This first of two posts looks at such topics as the importance of relationships to lobbying and what makes local lobbying so different.

Laura Hartman and Crina Archer's essay "False Beliefs, Partial Truths: Personal Myths and Ethical Blind Spots" (January 2012) provides a valuable new view on how our blind spots hamper our handling of ethical matters.

Double Blindness
Their first valuable observation is that, "[i]f left uninterrogated or concealed, ethical blind spots operate as perceptual distortions, encouraging us to believe that we have a full view of our situation when, in fact, our perception ... is partial and incomplete." Thus, "ethical blind spots make us doubly blind; we not only fail to perceive the ethical dimension of problems and situations, but we remain unaware of this failure."

It's as if we walked across intersections without realizing we were colorblind and, therefore, failing to note the position of the lights (my image, not the authors'). Most of the time, we will make it across the street unharmed, but (1) we will cause harm to cars and bicycles that have to slam on their breaks or veer around us, and (2) we will eventually be hurt. Only colorblind individuals who acknowledge that they do not have a complete view of their situation and, therefore, note the position of the lights will not do harm to others or themselves. Otherwise, they are doubly blind, and dangerous.

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.

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