The Change That Could Shift Public Opinion on Taxes

We’ve been wary of taxation since the Boston Tea Party. New finance ethics rules will help.
August 2019
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By Justin Marlowe  |  Columnist
Endowed Professor of Public Finance and Civic Engagement at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Washington

Many Americans think “trust in government” is an oxymoron. Indeed, distrust of government is one of our founding principles. The original 13 colonies had little in common, but they shared a deep and mutual wariness of the British crown. This is especially true of taxing and spending. The Sons of Liberty expressed their displeasure with King George’s fiscal policies not by filing a complaint, but by dumping a few hundred crates of tea -- and lots of uncollected tax dollars -- into the Boston Harbor.

Despite that historical skepticism, trust in government is a worthwhile and attainable goal. Citizens need to trust that their government will act in their best interest. For the most part, they believe states and localities do. According to a Gallup poll, in 2018 about 70 percent of Americans said they trusted their local government. That number hasn’t changed much since the 1970s. Trust in state government has dipped a bit but still hovers around 60 percent. That’s quite a contrast to Congress and the president, whose trustworthiness continued a downward trend in 2018 at 40 percent and 42 percent, respectively.

Social scientists don’t agree on what makes states and localities so much more trustworthy. One theory is that mayors and governors understand that if people believe their government treats them fairly and acts with integrity, then they’ll trust it. In fact, they’ll trust it even if they don’t agree with everything it does.

This understanding seems to be at the heart of the Government Finance Officers Association’s (GFOA) recent sweeping overhaul of its Code of Ethics. Codes of ethics tend to be checklists of professional do’s and don’ts. GFOA’s was no different. It prescribed that state and local finance professionals should follow the law, avoid conflicts of interest and so forth. While useful, it left a key question unanswered: Where’s the feedback? It’s clear what happens when finance officials act unethically. But what happens when they act ethically?

GFOA’s new Code of Ethics answers this question directly. It’s organized around the simple idea that the No. 1 job of state and local government finance professionals  is to earn and maintain citizens’ trust. The code’s preamble says, “Trust is an asset as important as any that can be found on our balance sheets,” and that state and local finance officials “have a deep and abiding desire” to show they’re worthy of citizens’ trust. Those are powerful words from people who take enormous pride in their balance sheets.

Beyond that bold statement of values, the new code is really a practical road map for how finance professionals can work to build and maintain trust. It’s what our friends in program evaluation would call a “theory of change.” It encourages GFOA members to take simple steps like developing policies and procedures to make sure that financial operations are as transparent as possible. It also speaks to personal conduct, such as doing the best work possible to show citizens value for their tax dollars. Some of its suggestions are quite aspirational, like making certain that budget debates include all the affected stakeholders. It follows that when government finance officers work transparently, work hard and work to include as many voices as possible in key decisions -- an essential point in our rapidly diversifying communities -- then citizens are more likely to see their public finance officials as worthy of their trust.

By reimagining ethics this way, GFOA has done two remarkable things. First, it’s offered practical advice to its members on how to navigate an increasingly tenuous and hostile civic space. Second, and perhaps more important, it’s articulated the real value proposition of public finance. Good public financial management is essential to trust in government. That’s an investment we can and should support.