making local government more ethical
There is nothing more natural and, in most circumstances, ethical than a mother doing her best to help her son when he is in trouble. And yet, in most jurisdictions, there are multiple government ethics laws that prohibit this very conduct when the mother is a government official. This is as good an example as there is of the fact that government ethics is not about ethical conduct in general, but rather about government fiduciaries dealing responsibly with their conflicts of interest.

According to an article in the Eagle Tribune last week, a hearing was held by the Massachusetts ethics commission regarding a complaint against a member of the Groveland, MA board of selectmen (its governing body). She was alleged to have used her position to try to help her son, a Groveland police officer who had been placed on administrative leave.

According to the EC's press release, this otherwise commendable conduct might have violated four different ethics provisions:

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.

According to an article this week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the new mayor of Poplar Bluff, MO is a gadfly who had been totally ignored when she questioned the dealings of her town government. This is generally a sign of a very poor ethics environment.

One of the problems she wants to deal with is the town manager's paid position on the board of a local bank. The manager's fellow bank board members consist of a "group of business leaders who also have their hands in much of the city business," in other words, restricted sources. Not only do these business people do business with the town government, but the bank does, as well (in a small town, most or even all banks do business with the government).

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.