I recently had the privilege of providing some ethics training to officials from around the country at the National League of Cities’ Congressional Cities Conference in Washington, D.C. Our focus was ethics, not ethics law. The law is an imperfect guide to ethical behavior. Ethics laws typically are written in response to unethical conduct. Consequently, ethics law is always at least one major ethics scandal behind the curve.
To be fair, many ethical challenges public officials face don’t present themselves wrapped in the smell of corruption. Many common activities of private citizens become ethically problematic only when we become public servants.
Take this scenario from my class: an old, wealthy and powerful friend (a true friend of the family, as opposed to a new “friend” one acquires by election), is aware that I have a son/daughter who is struggling to land that first career-building job. That friend also knows that I hope the son/daughter will be able to stay in the area, rather than having to move away to pursue a career.
This friend, on his/her own initiative, invites my adult child to lunch. It’s a pleasant event, at the end of which my friend offers my child a job in the friend’s firm. It’s a good job, one that is at least a plausible fit for my child’s skills and experience.
My adult child comes home excited and shares the good news.
Is there an ethical problem here?
If I’m a private citizen, I’m probably thrilled and proud. I also probably feel gratitude to my old friend and may seek a means to express it.
If I am a public official, things get at least a little more complicated. If my friend seeks something from the city (a rezoning, a variance, a contract, etc.), that tug of gratitude may make it difficult to have a clear vision of the public good. I may be inclined to grant my friend what, under different conditions, I would not grant another petitioner.
The conversation Sunday was rich. We spoke of the importance of family and our duty to our children. We also saw the potential for the public to perceive these events as evidence of favoritism.
This is about more than a potential campaign attack flyer or negative news story that might harm our political future. This is about undermining public trust in the fairness of our political system.
As one attendee said, “this really has opened my eyes. But now that I see the problems, I need the answers.” She probably wasn’t entirely satisfied when I said that I hadn’t given out answers because an answer, in this as in the case of so many ethical dilemmas, wasn’t entirely clear.
The task of a public official is to serve the public. We hold our office as a trust. Our duty, as officeholders, is to use the powers and the access of office, not for our personal benefit, but for the good of the people we were elected or appointed to serve. Because we live where we govern, there will be conflicts between our personal and familial interests and that solemn trust. Finding the ethical way to resolve them is the challenging, at times frustrating, and always (if we let it) ennobling task of true public servants.