What is Government Ethics?

[Music] Government ethics encompasses three general categories. The first is policy, the second is process, and the third is politics. Policy really involves ethical decision-making about substantive government matters. The second, process, is the unique sets of duties and obligations that a person assumes when they enter public service. And finally politics is the personal pursuit of running for office. In the policy area the considerations are in substantive decision-making. For example in the budgeting process, this is an area which really might reflect a city’s values. For example what if cuts have to be made? What programs get cut? What programs get funded? That is an ethical decision. Government ethics in the process context is really what people think of when they think of government ethics. It refers to the unique set of duties and obligations that a person assumes when they enter public service. We the people are sovereign and we delegate authority to public servants to act on our behalf, and because we do that we trust them to act for the common good, we trust them to be good stewards of the public treasury and public resources. And out of that there are certain duties that arise. For example, we have the duty of loyalty. This duty really is conflicts of interest. The public servant has the duty to put the public’s interest before his own personal interest or her own personal interest. Duty of fairness – this means that a public service servant has a duty of impartiality. They have to treat all constituents equally. They can’t favor those of their party or those that voted for them or those that donated to their campaign. They have a duty of care. That means they have to act competently, they have to obey all the laws, they have to be good stewards of the public treasury. There’s a duty of accountability that means that they have a duty to be transparent. This is where the open meeting laws and public records laws come from. It’s a codification of this concept that they have to act in the light and not in the dark. In the political context, it involves the personal pursuit of running for office. Our political process is based on the ethical ideal of creating an informed electorate, so ethical campaigns are ones that fulfill this function. Campaigns that meet this ethical obligation are ones that create political messaging that is fair, that is truthful, that is relevant. They are campaigns that disclose any obligations or promises made, so that voters can truly decide or know to whom a candidate is beholden and that can form their decision making. Ethical campaigns are ones where the candidate manages donor expectations and they don’t lead the donor to believe that a contribution will somehow influence political decisions down the road. And finally, candidates have an ethical obligation to reduce the vitriol, to engage in public debate, not to hide from the press, to be available, to have town hall meetings, to make known what their positions are, either on their website or through their spokespeople. The problem with vitriol in political discussion is that it poisons later legislative relationships and that can lead to political polarity down the road.

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