making local government more ethical
Last September, I wrote a blog post about an ethics initiative in Palm Beach County, Florida. A response to numerous scandals, it featured an ethics pledge, primarily for government officials, and a successful attempt to get an independent ethics commission and inspector general for the county government. I felt that the business leaders in Palm Beach County who led the initiative had a good understanding of government ethics, and took a fresh, effective approach.

I cannot say the same thing about a copycat initiative in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, the home of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, called Ethics Awareness. Its ethics initiative, led by a business group and an ethics institute at Misericordia University, is also a response to numerous scandals (see my blog post on the most infamous one), but it lacks the focus of the Palm Beach initiative.

It would be easy to say that politics is a team sport, like football, while ethics is an individual sport, like tennis. But this simply isn't true. Both ethical behavior and unethical behavior can be done as a team.

Pennsylvanians have, for some time, been entertained with a scandal called Bonusgate, which involves state legislative staff not only being used for campaigns, but getting bonuses, which makes a common practice appear even uglier. The ugliness has recently increased in intensity:  defense counsel for two of the legislators is accusing the attorney general (who instituted the criminal actions) of doing the very same thing, without the bonuses. And the attorney general, of a different political party than the great majority of the accused legislators, is running for governor. Could a screenwriter come up with a better plot to undermine citizens' trust in those who represent them?

The elephant in the room is the fact that most elected officials use their staff in their campaigns, and often loan them out to others', as well. The way to deal with conduct this common is not to prosecute it (especially when it is politically convenient). The best way, I think, is to recognize that this conduct is here to stay, and then regulate it.

This is the third in a series of blog posts inspired by reading Susan Neiman's book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists (Princeton, 2008). One of her topics is how an individual’s organizational environment can greatly affect his or her conduct. Her goal is not to excuse misconduct, but to explain it and to look at ways of avoiding it. She focuses on two well-known experiments.

Ethics charges are often not the end, but rather the beginning of a process to improve government ethics. Take a recent instance in Los Angeles.


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? In English: Who will guard the guardians? This is a question many people ask about ethics commissions. But the question I would like to raise is, Is this the right question to ask?