More on Ethics: July/August 2011

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“Enforcement or Ethical Capacity: Considering the Role of State Ethics Commissions at the Millennium,” by Robert W. Smith. (condensed)

Recommendations for Ethics Commissions for the Balance of the 21st Century

  1. Insulate the commission from politics.
  2. Commission need to do a better job of educating public employees and officials.
  3. An effective commission requires its own investigatory powers and staff devoted to ethics investigations and inquiry.
  4. The power to impose substantial penalties.
  5. Assurances of a base level of funding and personnel on a year-to-year basis.
  6. Multiple commissions, boards or committees for the different branches and levels of government complicate the ethics agenda.
  7. Sensitivity to the prevailing political culture is important for prioritizing goals and activities of the ethics commission.
  8. Just because something is legal does not make it ethical. Commissions need to be given much more discretion and flexibility in determining how the law should or should not apply.
  9. A purely external or internal control mechanism is not enough to ensure ethical government. The individual’s role in preserving ethics in government is important.
  10. The existence of ethics commissions sends an important symbolic message that ethics matters in government.

What Makes An Ethical Culture?

  • Public officials who are honest and have integrity.
  • Leaders who believe an ethical legislative institution is important.
  • Lawmakers who collectively and as individuals maintain high ethical standards.
  • Staff who support and contribute to the core values of the institution.
  •  Lobbyists who follow ethical principles.
  • Training in ethics law and the role of personal values.
  • Consistent and fair oversight.
  • A public that cares.

Lobbying and Ethics

The Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University undertook a three-year project that included interviewing lobbyists, legislators, staff and journalists about the growth of lobbying. The effort resulted in the publication of a handbook, “The Ethics of Lobbying,” which offers observations and recommendations for creating an ethical culture. The study raised these issues:

  • Ethical behavior in the public sector has two sides: the ethics of lawmakers and the ethics of lobbyists.
  • Effective lobbying can be ethical.
  • Money in financing political campaigns plays a role in influencing public policy. 
  • Lobbyists should always tell the truth.
  • The lobbying profession needs professional standards.
  • Conflicts of interest should be acknowledged and avoided.
  • Disclosure of lobbying activities should be complete and transparent.
  • The revolving door from policymaker to lobbyist creates a problem.
  • Regulations on lobbying do not ensure ethical conduct.
  • The public needs to get involved in the political system.