What Ethics in Local Leadership Looks Like

Whenever I talk about organizational plans, I ask the audience to quote, verbatim (and without looking at their city’s website or their business card) their city’s vision statement, or mission, or set of core values.

This evokes bemused laughter.

I’ll often get partial answers: “There’s something about service.” “Quality . . . I think.” “Umm . . . be ethical?”

Rarely do I get anything close to a complete answer.

One exception to this pattern occurred in the City of Naples, Florida. There, a high percentage of the staff, across the organizational chart, confidently reported that they were called to “Ethics Above All Else.”

They were right, in three senses.

First, “Ethics Above All Else” was the city’s motto. Second, their leadership was and is so committed to ethics that they set aside time for every staff person to experience my Creating and Maintaining a Culture of Ethics training program. Third, their leadership chose this program because they wanted to deepen their organization’s cultural commitment to ethics.

All too often, when public officials and employees attend “ethics training,” what we learn about is the law. Learning the laws that apply to our performance of public service is, of course, essential. It also sets a very low bar. “Don’t break the law” is excellent advice, but it hardly is equivalent to “Ethics Above All Else.”

Ethics laws were adopted precisely because our citizens objected to the conduct of some public officials, conduct that was unethical even though it was legal. Ethics laws are the tail chasing the dog of unethical conduct; they are not the standard of ethics.

Holding ourselves to the highest ethical standards in public service is both a personal quest and an organizational imperative. It is much easier for an individual employee or elected official to make an ethically sound decision if the culture around him or her is steeped in serious conversations about the ethics of public service. It is much harder when casual disregard for ethics is the norm.

My time with the staff of the City of Naples was not always comfortable. The ethics of public service are not identical to the ethics of our private lives. We are challenged to get out of our comfortable ways of working and thinking, to see the world through different lenses, and to take actions that can come at a tangible personal cost. The examples we worked, about implicit values that often guide our hiring decisions, about when ethical lapses should and should not be excused, and about the necessity of creating space for candid conversations about our ethical struggles, provoked some intense discussion and debate.

The result, after the training, was remarkable. A committee of 27 employees was formed to identify and define the city’s core values. This process included an employee survey that had an 88% response rate… an extraordinary level of engagement. Subsequently, the City of Naples has been working to develop customer service standards directly tied to those core values.

That’s taking the call to “Ethics Above All Else” seriously.

Conducting ourselves as public servants who truly live by the highest ethical standards is not easy. It also is critically important for those who seek the public’s trust. Investing our time engaging in how we create and maintain a culture of ethics within our cities is the best way to ensure we all have the knowledge and the support we need to succeed.

Learn more about creating a culture of ethics in local government at NLC’s 2019 City Summit Conference in San Antonio! NLC University will host a series of workshops designed help local leaders better govern, serve, and advocate for their communities. You can learn more about ethics and leadership from Dr. Paine at the Creating and Maintaining a Culture of Ethics seminar.

Scott-Paine-web.jpgAbout the author: After more than thirty years in higher education and more than a decade working with the Florida League of Cities in various part-time capacities, Dr. Scott Paine became a full-time League staff member in July 2015. Scott’s perspective on municipal government and public service has been formed by both his academic career and his political activities, which included serving two terms as a City Councilman in Tampa, Florida in the 1990s.

A popular conference presenter and author on leadership and public service, Scott has addressed audiences from Seattle, Washington to Augusta, Maine and from Bismarck, North Dakota to the Florida Keys. Scott’s most recent book is More than Self (2017) and is available from Amazon in both a paperback and Kindle edition. He also wrote Rethinking Public Leadership for the 21st Century (2009). He writes a regular column in Quality Cities (QC) magazine and a blog at drscottpaine.com.