Codes of conduct and ethics in the public sector
In a two-part set of articles, we look at an issue confronting agencies at their highest levels—the elected body engaged in increasingly bad behavior and what can be done to guide them back to decorum and civility. The first articleidentified some of the issues confronting agencies and provided suggestions for addressing the issues. This second article captures the suggestions and legal concepts in a governing body code of conduct, with specific measures and consequences.
Now that elected officials have been reminded of their roles relative to personnel matters and day-to-day operations, and they have been educated on what is expected of them in key legal areas, a foundation is established for engaging in ethical and professional behavior.
The next step in the process is to capture these important reminders and legal concepts in a governing body code of conduct. Codes of conduct and ethics help elected officials navigate the vast and complex laws they are expected to comply with. Agencies may have outdated codes or none at all. Senior management can assist their boards by presenting them with new or revised codes of conduct and ethics for consideration.
Inherent in such codes is a key concept—civility. Media coverage of national and various state events has placed a spotlight on civility and decorum at our highest levels. By updating codes of conduct, public agencies can turn the spotlight on promoting and renewing their commitments to civility in the workspaces and public service. Civility goes beyond the law and is more than simply good manners. It is the core of mutual respect and requires that we speak in ways that are respectful, restrained and responsible, and we avoid rude, demeaning or bullying conduct and statements.
Codes of conduct and ethics can take various forms, including stand-alone policies or encompassed within a comprehensive set of governance policies. The codes can be abbreviated, high-level documents with core concepts, or they can be detailed with specific examples.
Whatever the format, these codes should start with core values: integrity, responsibility, fairness, accountability, professionalism, decorum, respect for elected or appointed officials, staff, and the public, and appropriate and efficient use of public resources. Then generally, they should include statements about responsibilities of public office, dedicated service and conflicts of interest.
Codes that provide specific examples can include statements such as:
- While a councilmember is speaking, members shall not interrupt and shall not engage in or entertain private discussions.
- Members are encouraged to use formal style, including appropriate titles, in addressing the public, staff and each other.
- Members shall refrain from use of profanity, emotional outbursts, personal attacks or any speech or conduct that tends to bring the organization into disrepute. Members are to maintain a neutral tone of voice at all times.
The creation or revision of codes of conduct can include input from individual elected officials, staff and the public. Once drafted, the document can be presented for formal adoption.
Ultimately, there needs to be accountability if there is a violation of the code standards. The code should outline the process for reporting alleged violations and possible investigations. Following completion of a fact-finding process resulting in sustained allegations, a governing body may take action to publicly censure the elected official. At a minimum, a public censure shows an agency is distancing itself from offending behavior.
Once elected officials have set the pace with an updated code, a platform is created for the agency to approach its employees and their bargaining groups to discuss updates to similar policies for management and staff. For represented employees, if the updates include counseling or discipline for violations of the policy, an obligation to negotiate prior to implementation of the new policy is likely triggered.
There is opportunity to lay a civil foundation at each agency and renew a commitment to ethical and respectful behavior, and it starts with the governing body. Once officials are reminded about steering clear of personnel matters, as well as what is expected of them in key legal areas, they can then work more effectively to implement and adhere to a code of conduct that helps maintain the desired civility and decorum in public service.
Shelline Bennett is a partner with the law firm of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore. She can be contacted at [email protected].