Why Ethics Training is a Waste

It won’t stop the worst abuses. Making everybody in government sit through it is like fishing for minnows, but it’s the sharks that are the problem.

In the mid-1990s, Kansas City was rocked by a wave of public-corruption prosecutions involving elected city officials. In response to community outrage, Mayor Emanuel Cleaver appointed a group of business and community leaders to look into contracting procedures at city hall. This group was known as "the Red Flag Commission" and I, as the city auditor, was among those appointed by the mayor to serve as its staff. Among the commission's final recommendations was one I had pushed for: establishment of "a required and annual ethics training program which focuses on realistic scenarios for all staff."

It wasn't the only time I recommended ethics training for all city employees. I had done so two years earlier, in 1995, and I did so again in 1998 in an audit following up on implementation of the Red Flag Commission's report. Finally it happened, and since I was a city employee, eventually I found myself sitting in ethics training.

I thought it was dumb. Some of the stuff was interesting, and maybe the preaching would save a few souls. But most of it seemed to trivialize ethics. There seemed to be a mismatch between the serious crimes that had occurred and the response. It was as if ordinary city employees were being admonished not to take a city-provided pen home and that showing up for work five minutes late was a theft of time. In seeking to catch sharks, it seemed to me, we had set our nets for minnows. Certainly there is a place for ethics training, but it will not do the work of a reasonable set of internal controls, and everything is off the table without good leadership.

This story about the aftermath of the scandals in Kansas City was brought to my mind by a recent article in the Washington Post reporting that the president's Office of Government Ethics had given a clean bill of health to the General Services Administration's ethics program just days after the now-infamous 2010 Las Vegas conference. The article's implication was is that the scandal occurred because GSA's ethics program was in fact no good.

Certainly the Las Vegas conference was over the top. The spending was outrageous, and GSA's inspector general subsequently issued a scathing report on waste and abuse related to the event. But did rank-and-file GSA employees who attended the conference behave unethically? Frankly, I think not. They were told or given permission to attend, and I don't see what they would have learned from an ethics-training program that would have enabled them to stop what occurred. Clearly the top administrators who planned and carried out the conference were at fault, and several have been fired or forced to resign. Would a well-designed ethics program have deterred these managers? I doubt it, and the fact that they did what they did is irrelevant to the question of whether GSA's ethics program was "effectively administered and in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies," as the Office of Government Ethics concluded.

Experienced auditors in both government and the private sector will tell you that the real ethics damage in an organization is done, as it was in Kansas City and at GSA, not by frontline workers but by high-level officials. Ambitious people in positions of power and privilege who are determined to exploit their positions are not going to be dissuaded by an ethics-training program. Regular auditing and reporting, along with effective transparency, are reasonable deterrents, but in the end the risk of abuse is always present.

The Red Flag Commission seemed to understand that, describing its recommendations as intended to at least minimize inappropriate or illegal activity and maximize the likelihood of exposure when such behavior does occur. As the commission concluded, "No system can provide a perfect defense against human cupidity."

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