Reprinted with permission from the January 2009 issue of Public Management
(PM) magazine published by ICMA, the premier local government leadership
and management organization, Washington, D.C.
At the beginning of this new year, local government leaders may well face
significant challenges in delivering ethical, transparent democracy. Limited
financial resources at every level of government are likely to force difficult
choices about services, commitments, and investments in the future.
Although opportunities and innovation may result as well, it will no doubt be
a tough period. Successfully navigating staff, organizations, and communities
through challenging times requires leaders to focus on the fundamentals, that
is, on ethics. Building a strong ethical foundation is the key to success.
During periods of uncertainty, it's prudent for managers to take steps to
ensure that the foundation is rock solid.
Is there agreement about the core values that will drive decision making and
policies? Do we demonstrate respect for the unique roles and responsibilities
of elected officials, staff, and residents? In the push for results and
accountability, is it clear to all that how we achieve our goals is as critical
as getting there?
Consider these steps to promote an ethical culture:
As Dave Childs, ICMA senior advisor and assistant county manager, Washoe County,
Nevada, notes, "We are all experiencing a time of extreme stress in our organizations.
A key result is that our employees are justifiably worried about the stability of
their jobs, about their personal finances, and ultimately about their own future.
In uncertain times, it is imperative that we provide our employees something solid
to hold on to.
Renew your commitment to the profession's values. Commitment is more than hanging the ICMA Code of Ethics on the wall (although that isn't a bad idea). It is a dedication to the highest standards of honor and integrity in all public and personal matters in order to merit the respect and confidence of those we serve. It is unwavering integrity.
Engage elected officials. Use council orientations and goal-setting sessions to encourage elected officials to understand how their conduct and commitment to public service values contribute to ethical government. Take the time to enlighten them about the ICMA Code of Ethics and the values that guide professional local government managers.
Set organizational values. If the organization lacks a code of ethics or statement of values, implement a process that engages elected officials, staff, and residents in the definition of core values and acceptable conduct. If you have a code of ethics, is there clarity and agreement on the core values that drive critical decisions? Organizations or teams with shared values produce the best results.
Ethics training. It's a myth that good people always make wise choices. Regular training builds awareness of common ethical issues, provides tools and strategies for effective problem solving, and, yes, can even inspire someone to do the right thing when faced with a difficult ethical dilemma.
Welcome the dialogue and the dissenter. Make sure that individuals have formal and informal opportunities to raise any ethical concerns they may have about conduct or decisions in the organization. Create a safe environment for those seeking advice or raising a warning.
Transparency, transparency, transparency. Clear and regular communication, complete and accurate disclosure of the facts, taking responsibility for decisions and outcomes, and a focus on transparent processes all work to build trust with those we serve.
"And, to that end, what could be more important than having every employee be totally
sure of the values and ethics of their workplace and their organization? As the leaders
of our organizations, we need to redouble our efforts to bring that sense of stability and
grounding to all of the dedicated employees who serve the public each and every day.
Building a solid ethical foundation is one of the keys to providing that stability and
restoring confidence. And now is the time to begin."