County Manager

Ethics In Local Government: It's More Than Not Doing Bad Things


By: Ron Carlee, Arlington County Manager, 2001-2009

When we talk about ethics in local government we tend to talk about codes of conduct and not doing bad things: stealing, lying, cheating, favoritism, self-aggrandizement, profiting from our positions. Most of us, thankfully, do not need a code of ethics to keep from doing obviously bad things. Nonetheless, some people do bad things regardless of ethics codes and criminal codes. Why they do so varies: greed, arrogance, stupidity, and sometimes merely bad judgment. Regardless, the conduct is bad and the people who do it, know it.

There are also a host of gray areas, where we who work in local government must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Unfortunately, some of us slip on this slope, failing to take the "A1" test -- Would I be willing to defend my actions on the front page of the newspaper and could I do so successfully?

In both areas, egregious misconduct and appearance of misconduct, extensive professional literature and guidelines are available to help us as local leaders maintain our individual, personal ethics. Doing so is a core value of our profession as public administrators.

Two less examined areas of professional ethics are unique to those of us who serve in senior leadership positions: ensuring the ethics of the individuals for whom we have oversight and ensuring the ethics of the very institution of government.

Recently, the former executive director of United Way of the National Capital Area pled guilty to illegal conduct involving almost a half-million dollars of donor contributions. His behavior was clearly wrong and had a devastating impact on this critical non-profit agency, whose fund raising dropped dramatically and at tragic expense to the region's non-profit and at-risk communities.

But the executive director was not the only one who failed in upholding his ethical responsibility. He was supervised by a Board of Directors, whose members (many of whom I know personally) are good, honest, highly ethical people who agreed to be volunteer members of the Board simply because they wanted to help people. Unfortunately, they failed in their stewardship responsibilities and must also assume responsibility for the consequences. Were their failures from complacence, intimidation by an overbearing personality of the executive director, or from being too trusting? Most of us may not have done anything differently; regardless, the consequences are the same and are not acceptable.

Are we, the senior leaders of government, fulfilling our oversight responsibilities? Do we have people in our organizations engaged in unethical behavior? Do we have people in our organizations not performing their jobs? How do we know? What are we doing about it? Are we complacent, intimidated, too trusting, or too busy? If a major case of unethical conduct surfaced in our governments, what impact would it have on our organizations and on the public trust? Would the public say, "They should have known?"

Our responsibilities as heads of government go even further. We are responsible for ensuring the ethics of government itself.

Recently, I had the rare honor of meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he received an Ethics Award from Marymount University in Arlington. As I watched him in both informal and formal settings, I was awestruck by how special he is… his demeanor, his gentleness, and his infectious laughter. As I listened to his formal remarks, it occurred to me that in honoring Archbishop Tutu for his leadership in opposing apartheid we are actually honoring him for his brave opposition to overt, intentional discrimination by government.

In the United States, the government that most directly affects people's lives day-to-day is local government. From the time people get up in the morning and turn on the water, flush the toilet, walk down the sidewalk, drive on the streets or take transit, send their kids to school, visit parks, recreation centers, and libraries, record their deeds and marriages, open their businesses or build their homes, people are dealing with local government. In moments of greatest need, people dial 911 and local government responds.

This country -- and the governments therein -- was founded on egalitarian principles of freedom and equality and it falls heavily to the leaders of local government to make the principles reality since we are the face of government that people actually see. The leaders of local government make these principles real, or not, by the decisions we make. We decide who gets served and how they get served. We allocate the resources of government: by political pressure, bureaucratic norms, need, demand, or by the seat of our pants.

Robert Lineberry (Equality and Urban Policy, The Distribution of Municipal Public Services, Sage Publications, 1977) wrote that "made once, a decision is an exercise in administrative discretion; made twice is precedential [sic]; made ad infinitum, it is a decision rule for the treatment of classes of cases." In other words, it becomes the way that things are done.

Are these myriad administrative decisions made ethically? Are they consistent with our egalitarian values? And, are allocation decisions then implemented ethically, respectful of all people?

Archbishop Tutu's experience was shaped by apartheid carried out by the government of South Africa. Growing up in the Jim Crow environment of Birmingham, Alabama shaped my own experiences. In both cases (and many, many others), governments – that is the people working in government – were actively and intentionally engaged in systematic discriminatory, unethical administration of government.

Today, rarely does anyone dare suggest that local governments should discriminate based on race or color. Even racists are much more sophisticated than to advocate overt discrimination. But, what really happens subtly at the line levels of government on a day-to-day basis across the full range of people we serve?

  • Are people of color equitably represented throughout our organizations?
  • Are women always given the same deference as men?
  • Are immigrants with limited English met with impatience?
  • Are people who appear to be Middle Eastern met with a certain suspicion?
  • Do people with severe physical or mental disabilities confront awkward discomfort and condescension?
  • And why do we deny gays and lesbians equal rights and why would we consider a Constitutional amendment to ensure that discrimination?

It is a scary thought, especially for those of us who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, but we are in charge. We are the government.

We are obligated to behave with high personal standards and we are obligated to ensure high personal ethics of individuals in our organizations; but this is not enough. We are entrusted with ensuring that the very institution of government is ethical.

This article was presented in 2007 as a speech to the Montgomery County, Maryland Leadership Forum; the George Mason University chapter of Pi Alpha Alpha National Honor Society for Public Affairs and Administration; and Arlington County's extended management team.

Last Modified: November 22, 2010
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