making local government more ethical
"Most of us dramatically underestimate the degree to which our behavior is affected by incentives and other situational factors." This is one of the most important sentences in Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It, a new book by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel (Princeton University Press).

Ethical Fading
This sentence is central to the authors' concept of "ethical fading." Ethical fading involves the elimination of the ethical dimension of a decision. Goals, rewards, informal pressures, even compliance systems effectively blind us to the ethical implications of what we do. The result is that we do not see our behavior as ethical, but as something else:  acting for our agency, acting strategically, considering the financial costs and benefits, pushing our party's platform, doing what we are required to do by law, doing what it takes to look good.

How important is ethics training? According to Justice Ginsburg's dissent in Connick v. Thompson, a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 29, it is the difference between life and death.

Violence happens. The world is violent. People are naturally violent. This is what people say.

Politicians are all crooks. Government ethics is an oxymoron. Don't be so naïve. This is what people say.

As Michael N. Nagler says in his book The Search for a Nonviolent Future, "when we have negative expectations, life obligingly fulfills them." We have a choice. We can speak in double negatives, like "Stop violence" (or "Stop corruption"). Or we can speak in positives, like "Let's cooperate, mediate, work things out" (or "Let's discuss what's in the public interest").

We also have a negative view of power. Power, we think, is used to oppress, to harm, to control. But as Nagler points out, there is more than one kind of power.

Despite the many differences between corporate and government ethics, sometimes the corporate ethics world has a lot to teach the government ethics world, especially considering that corporate ethics has a zillion times the personnel and budget to work with.

One example of this appears in a Harvard Business Review blog post yesterday by Francesca Gino, a Harvard Business School professor. The post focuses on what ways work in affecting ethics in the workplace, based on studies Gino has done. Since this is an important issue in the government workplace as well, this post is worth a look.

On January 28, the New York State Bar Association issued a report on government ethics reform in New York State, which includes a section on local government ethics reform. The report points out the many inadequacies of Article 18 of the General Municipal Law (click on GMU, then scroll down and click Art. 18), and recommends major improvements in what the state requires of local governments with respect to ethics.

This third of three posts on ethics reform in Gwinnett County, Georgia looks at the county officials' response to the recommendations in the 2007 report drafted by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, and in the grand jury's October 2010 report.