making local government more ethical
Reading in The Economist a distinction made by Paul Kingsnorth, a leader of the uncivilization movement, a response to climate change, made me wonder whether it is also important with respect to government ethics. His distinction is between a "problem" and a "predicament." A "problem" is something that can be solved. A "predicament" is something that must be endured, for which there is no real solution. When faced with a predicament, the appropriate response is not to try to solve it, but rather to accept it and feel grief for what is lost because of it.

Government ethics programs are intended to prevent and enforce against the misuse of public office for personal benefit. But is the use of public office for personal benefit a "problem" or a "predicament"? Can it be prevented, or is it just the way people are, or the way people who get into politics are, or the way people are who obtain public office and give in to the opportunities presented by power and the pressures of their colleagues, friends, business associates, and family members? Is this something we must endure or something that can be changed?

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.

The subject of Margaret Sullivan's Public Editor column in yesterday's New York Times is the corrupting influence of journalists getting too close to their sources. In other words, in the language of C.J. Roberts, "ingratiation and access." With respect to local government ethics, the subject would be the corrupting influence of relationships between local officials and those seeking special benefits from the local government.

The most relevant quote in the column comes from Jesse Eisinger, a financial reporter for ProPublica (I wrote about one of his columns just two months ago). He constantly reminds himself why sources share information with him: "It's not because I'm good looking or a nice person. They're all talking to push an agenda."

Update: April 3, 2014 (see below)

Every so often, someone comes along and says, What's so bad about government officials' ethical misconduct? Isn't it worth having ethical misconduct if it means an effective government?

This time it's Hilary Krieger, a Washington Post editor, who recently made the argument in an op-ed piece in her own newspaper, which has been reproduced in others. Unusually, her argument focuses on local government, on the current D.C. mayor in fact (see my recent blog post about some of the allegations against him).

Krieger asks, "Is it really in voters’ best interests to disqualify candidates, no matter the good they’ve done, because of a corruption scandal or two?" Immediately, she says that most voters don't think so.

But is this the right question to ask? Is it a matter of disqualifying candidates or is it, instead, a matter of uncovering their misconduct and sanctioning them for it? The voting booth is not the only place, or even the best place, to deal with misconduct. As Krieger acknowledges, cases such as the mayor's "are often viewed [by the public] as politics as usual; plus, they can be too convoluted for the public to easily follow."

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.