Ethics Codes: Too Long? Too Short?

Does the length of an ethics code affect how much it can help public employees? An assistant city manager in California responds.
by | May 19, 2010

Recently, Management Insights contributor Bob Stone published a column mentioning specifically that ICMA's Code of Ethics ("a pretty good code of ethics") is long, recommending a wallet-sized code of ethics as a solution.The column generated lots of reader feedback. I encourage you to read through the comments after reading Stone's column, where readers commented on ICMA's code length and additional ethics they might includeon a card.

Late last week, Governing received a tweet from Karen Pinkos (@kepinkos), assistant city manager for El Cerrito, Calif. and ICMA's Executive Board West Coast Regional VP in response to the column:

@kepinkos twitter

Because of her position as a public employee and an ICMA executive board member, I invited Pinkos to share her thoughts in a guest blog post:

No Shortcuts

By Karen Pinkos

I read Bob Stone's latest Governing column with interest until I came to the line: "Most people can't live by the ICMA Code of Ethics because they simply can't remember any of it." I couldn't disagree more, both as an ICMA member and a local government manager. I don't believe the length of a document is a barrier to not being able to live by its standards. The California Vehicle Code is probably millions of words long. People are still expected to live by it. If I get pulled over for speeding, I can't use the excuse that it's too long to read. I know better.

Maybe I'm being a little defensive. But as a proud member of ICMA that serves on the executive board, I can promise that ICMA members know the Code and the principles behind it, and take it very seriously. In fact, it's what sets us apart from other public sector professionals. It's the very foundation of what we advocate as professional, efficient, and yes, ethical local government management.

The ICMA Code of Ethics has been in place since 1924, written by members for members. We developed it together and enforce it together. Members are expected to uphold it or else they're held accountable, sometimes publicly. Our profession's very reputation is at stake. With so much mistrust in government lately, a complete code of ethics is more necessary than ever to promote public confidence in our work.

Too long? The Code itself consists of 12 tenets of ethical behavior which fits nicely in a frame in my office and I think could indeed fit well on a small card. The accompanying guidelines are more detailed to clarify the tenets built on those 85 years of history.

Don't get me wrong, I love making things simple if at all possible. But in the same way that good driving isn't just noticing a speed limit sign, fostering an ethical culture is more than a cheatsheet. It takes constant work, and managers do have the responsibility to lead by example. We are on the front lines as the leaders of our organizations that serve between the line staff, elected officials, and the public. In this dynamic, ethical situations are often not easily answered. I'm not sure I'd want to reduce the gravity of these challenges by suggesting that there's a simple formula to solve them.

Any code of ethics must be a living document. Ethical standards may be universal and timeless, but the world isn't the same as it was 85 years ago, and the interpretation of ethical issues isn't the same either. Considering what we see these days on TV, on the Internet and what people put out about themselves via social media, I'm afraid that the answer to "Can I tell my mother about this?" or "Do I care if this is in the paper?" is NOT the same answer it used to be!

People make mistakes. I've found, though, that if someone breaches the Code, it's usually not because they don't know what's in it. Ethics can be tricky. Yet according to ICMA Ethics Director Martha Perego, in an organization with over 8,700 members, she investigates less than 30 reported cases a year. We must be doing something right. This doesn't mean, however, we rest on our laurels: Ethical behavior is, again, our very foundation as professional managers and we insist upon walking the talk.

The Code goes beyond its members. Through the manager, it becomes part of the very core of an organization. Guiding staff using the values expressed in the Code is central to my success. I work in local government because I have a direct impact on how people feel about where they live. I talk to residents every day, and I am proud that they can rest assured that their staff is accountable to ethical standards, will spend their money wisely, and respects their trust in us.

I believe the ICMA Code of Ethics -- regardless of length -- is the best standard for government managers. I'll concede that the demand for an ethical culture in the public sector, whatever code is followed, is what is most important. But the bottom line is that the length of a code isn't what matters. It's the foundation behind such a code, and whether there is accountability to be held to those ethical standards. And to me, you just can't get there by shortcut.

Does the length of an ethics code affect how much it helps or hinders public employees? Post your thoughts below, or address previous comments on Bob Stone's Management Insights column here

Tina Trenkner
Tina Trenkner | Deputy Editor, |  |  @tinatrenkner