It is often said that ethics is the foundation of public service and essential for public trust and confidence in public officials. This is true, but ethics alone is not enough.
A 2019 study conducted by the Pew Research Center reports that public trust in government remains near historic lows. The current dearth of public confidence in government requires elected and appointed officials to lead by example even more than in the past. This means conducting themselves with the highest levels of civility and decorum, thereby giving residents a reason to reconsider negative stereotypes of government leaders and to modulate their own behavior when engaging with government officials.
Many observers lament the coarsening of civic dialogue in the United States and note its creeping effects in council chambers. Sometimes this manifests in a few shrill advocates and critics who spew vitriol and discord to disrupt the public process. At other times, council members themselves display an appalling lack of respect for each other, staff and/or the public they serve. Invariably, the council’s example sets the tone. Disrespectful conduct on the council’s part normalizes such behavior by the public attending the meeting or watching it on television or online. The cycle then repeats — for the worse.
Elected officials’ lack of civility impedes governance in many ways, such as stalling the decisionmaking process, undermining employee retention and recruitment, fueling political apathy and discouraging public participation. Over time, the standard set for acceptable behavior becomes increasingly lower.
Although cities periodically conduct ethics training for officials as required by state law (AB 1234, Chapter 700, Statutes of 2005), most don’t take the time to discuss how they govern. This is puzzling because local government can be seen as the ultimate team sport, where everyone must play their roles well for civic progress to occur.
Fostering Focused and Productive Dialogue
How often do councils and senior staff take time to discuss what is working and what can be improved in the ways they interact and carry out their duties? What benchmarks do they use to measure their behavior? Most importantly, how do they hold themselves and each other accountable?
Many cities have adopted codes of ethics for their organizations and/or city councils, which is positive and appropriate. Some are taking the additional step of defining how the elected leaders and staff are to behave in carrying out their duties. These policies are typically called codes of conduct or council guidelines or norms. In such policies, the local government leadership sets the rules and expectations for how they govern their cities — defining a civil and respectful governing culture consistent with best practices.