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.
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.

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).

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