Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Discussing Ethics Part II - Keeping Politicians Clean

Yesterday I wrote about Talk of Alaska's discussion on ethics and the difficulty of talking about ethics in the middle of a public ethics dispute. It's natural to be biased by who, in the current controversy, you think is 'right.' So, I reasoned, we needed to step back and look at the underlying conditions that contribute to ethical communities.

In that post I argued that because conflict of interest is inherent in all jobs, the real focus needs to be on how to prevent conflicts of interest from leading to the two most common negative consequences of a conflict of interest: undue gain and improper influence.

Most of my views on this have evolved from teaching graduate public administration students and also doing ethics workshops with municipal employees for many years. Living and working in Asia have also contributed to my understanding of this topic. The ideas here have been written up in more detail as "Balancing Tensions between Personal and Public Obligations: A Context for Public Ethics and Corruption" in a chapter of a public administration book. The focus of that chapter and these ideas is NOT specifically Alaska, but the dynamics that affect the level of ethics and corruption anywhere in the world.

So let's move on.

In most countries or well defined communities there are official rules - government laws - but also other social norms that people follow. Modern states tend to be based on what we know as "the rule of law." Decisions are supposed to be based on rationalized rules and laws, and aren't made arbitrarily by some despot. But we also have the pull of loyalty to our family and friends that all of us recognize as legitimate as well. It's why we have laws against nepotism.

Ideally the rule of law and other norms support each other, but often they do not. Some common competing norms for government officials include religion, family loyalties, and alternatives to government. These alternatives include private options that come into being to fill gaps that aren't otherwise met by the government - from perfectly legal ones such as the legal market to highly illegal ones such as organized crime.

So with this very brief context, here are some basic cultural questions for testing the likelihood that public officials and administrators will be drawn into unethical behavior in any particular setting:
  1. Can administrators meet their basic needs (live a life-style consistent to the societal expectations for a person in that position) from the compensation of their jobs?
    • In the US, public salaries for jobs that require the least amount of education tend to be highly competitive, and when you include benefits and pensions, are probably better than what many of the employees could get in the private sector. However, those in professional jobs - lawyers, engineers, accountants - often could make much higher salaries in the private sector than in government.

  2. Are there conflicts between the social norms and the rule of law?
    • Do many public officials have personal obligations that are so strong that they may lead them to violate their professional obligations? Can religious or family responsibilities, or other personal ties interfere with their public job performance? In a number of countries family or school ties lead to severe conflicts for public officials. In the US business interests are often a challenge to politicians' duties to the public as a whole.

  3. Are there options to meet one's needs through breaking the law?
    • In places where the rule of law is lax and corruption widespread, even basically honest officials are tempted. Where organized crime has strong power, politicians may be threatened if they don't cooperate with crime bosses. A terrible example of this in the news are the Mexican drug cartels that make it dangerous to be an honest public official in many places in Mexico. But the tales I hear from Juneau suggest that temptation lurks in much less overt ways - free dinners and drinks from lobbyists, poker parties where politicians hardly ever lose, and a bunch of people who are suddenly new legislators' best friends.

  4. What is the likelihood of getting caught breaking the laws?
    • If corruption is commonplace and few are ever punished, falling to temptation is more likely. The Alaskan legislators who were convicted in the last few years were not doing things that hadn't been fairly common in Juneau. On the other hand, better education in ethics wouldn't hurt - education that is more than learning abstractly about laws. And also includes federal laws. The three convicted legislators didn't even know about the federal laws they were breaking at the time. But such training shouldn't simply be how to avoid getting caught.

  5. Is the price of breaking the rules worth the risk?
    • If the potential gains are great and the potential punishment if caught low, some will take the chance, especially in places where legitimate means of improving one's position in life are limited.

While some Alaskans may think this is extreme, I would remind them the model here was not focused on Alaska, but nations around the world. But I would also point out that legislative salaries in Alaska are set with the expectation that legislators have other jobs when the legislature is not meeting. This does set up the opportunity for businesses affected by the legislature to hire legislators during the off season. While there may be situations where the legislator is completely free of obligations to his or her employer, there has to be a real tension for most. And the appearance of a wrong doing is ever present in the public's mind.

So, based on this scenario, what are the likeliest strategies for preventing unethical behaviors?
  1. Employing organizations must provide enough compensation and free time for employees to meet their basic personal obligations.
  2. Public officials should not be able to meet their needs through illegal channels.
  3. Public officials pursuing illegal channels should have a high probability of being caught and punished.
  4. Specific factors that make corruption less likely include:
  • Transparency
    • As much as possible is out in the open to be seen and reviewed
  • Independent watchdogs
    • Independent media, ombudsman offices, auditors, citizen activists, real protections for whistle blowers, are all important in this.
  • Political structure with dispersed power
    • The more power is concentrated the less opportunity to challenge that power. But if it is too dispersed, it may be difficult to get anything done. (No one said any of this is easy.)
  • Economic and political systems in which wealth and power are equitably distributed.
    • The bigger the gap between the rich and poor, and the more difficult it is to bridge that gap legally, the more likely people will go to illegal options. If this assumption is accurate, then the more equitable a country's economy is, the less likely there will be corruption.
  • Sufficiently educated population that understands the dynamics of economic, political, and social systems and thus is less susceptible to propaganda that supports corruption
    • To the extent people are susceptible to propaganda - economic or political or social - demagogues can take advantage of real or perceived problems to increase their own power and legitimize the illegitimate.

These are basic rules of thumb. Their application necessarily must vary from situation to situation. Some are relatively easy short term changes. Some are very difficult long-term changes. Some may react, "this is impossible in my country." While I have seen 'the impossible' happen several times in my lifetime, I don't dismiss that some things are real long shots. But it is also healthy to understand that sometimes we are facing extremely difficult tasks and that perhaps we should shift our efforts to areas that will yield more benefits for the costs. We tend to be better at understanding what is impossible physically ("Would you please jump over this house?") than we are at understanding things that might be impossible socially ("We will eliminate homelessness in two years.")

There's a lot of stuff there. Here's a simpler recap of the strategies:

Shorter term measures:
  1. Reasonable compensation for officials so that they aren't tempted to make more money in ways that put them into compromising positions.

  2. Tough, but enforceable laws that make it clear that undue gain and improper influence are not acceptable.

  3. Incentive structures that protect independent watch dogs - media, auditing agencies, citizen activists, etc.

  4. Transparency - there should be few areas where the public does not have access to what public officials are doing. Freedom of Information laws have already identified those areas that are legitimately confidential and when that confidentiality is no longer needed. Perhaps statute of limitations should be related to when the information becomes publicly available.

Longer term measures:
  1. Work to have reasonably equitable distribution of education, wealth, and power. At the very least, legitimate ways to improve one's position in society should be more accessible and attractive than illegitimate ways.

  2. Education, from primary school on, should focus on developing students' critical thinking abilities.
Improving the ethical climate of our state - or any political entity - is not something we can do quickly. It's based on a mix of factors that include personal values of officials, but also the social, economic, and legal structures that increase or decrease incentives to be good.


  1. Hearing you on the air and reading your last 2 blogs has me really scratching my head now.

    You are no doubt a very wise man Steven, and I mean that sincerely.

    When I line up the sins of Sarah Palin vs those of say.....Don Young......I find in my mind anyway, and I'm no PhD scholar, that Don Young is by far the more corrupt politician of the two.

    I'm not a Palin fan by any stretch of the imagination, in fact I find the work of some of your fellow AK Bloggers to be far more offensive (publishing photos of children on a political advocay blog with a w/o thier parents permissions, spreading known to be false rumors, etc) than Mrs. Palin's politics.

    But hey, I'm just some schlub who doesn't even have a Bachelor's degree, so I guess it's safe to just go ahead and dismiss my opinion.

  2. Dear Schlub (and I hope you take that as an ironic and respectful nickname, sort of like Little John in Robin Hood, and much better than Anonymous),

    First, schooling doesn't make you wise. At best it gives you skills that enable you to do something better than you could before. The best schools help students unlock their inherent smarts and use them well.

    Second, are you scratching your head because it doesn't make sense to you? Or because it leads you to think Don Young more corrupt than Sarah Palin? Or you were thinking that already and you think what I wrote to suggests Palin is worse than Young?

    Third, we have allegations about Young which do indicate that his level of unethical behavior is probably much higher than Palin's. So on that point I would agree with you. I'm not sure why you think I might not agree. Though I would also say that Young's contributions to Alaska are also much higher than Palin's.

    Perhaps you might think that because I have spent more time here on Palin than on Young. I suspect that is the case for me and other bloggers for a couple of reasons. First, the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are investigating Young, and they have far more access to information than bloggers do. It may be wishful thinking, but I suspect we've all just decided the FBI and DOJ would get the goods on Young and we'd focus on other things. Second, while Palin has held back some official records, she's also said enough publicly to be an easy target for anyone who knows the rules of logic.

    So, you are probably right that we have been distracted by the easy target and not looked at the significant target. (Though, given people's national hopes for Palin, I think Alaskan bloggers had a special obligation to watch her closely.) But I also don't like the idea of us going after targets. We should be trying to bring out information, not shoot people down.

    I would also note that I'm not responsible for what other bloggers write (and you didn't imply that). The most active AK bloggers that I follow, who have gone after Palin, have been careful to identify rumors as rumors and they have not written about rumors once they knew they were false. Some rumors they've never even mentioned. There are some who still have questions about the birth of Trig. Until those unanswered questions are addressed, I suspect that they will keep asking them. It does seem that Palin made some bizarre decisions there - but the more we know about Palin, perhaps bizarre is more probable than logical would be.

    Finally, a bachelors degree or PhD doesn't guarantee wisdom or even common sense. Lack of those degrees doesn't mean someone is dumb. There are other ways than the university to get smarts, and I'd say you've benefited from those other ways. So don't put yourself down.

    Thanks for your comment. Keep them coming.

  3. Steve, perhaps my fellow reader could enrol on university as I have. I'm in my 50s, and no one has told me not to yet. It's good to study again; heck, maybe I will awaken my inherent smarts! (all smiles)

  4. I'm disturbed that you make a distinction between a blatent or small ethics violation!My level of education may not meet yours, but it is obvious one small infraction is as bad as a large one.Your ex Gov. was allowed to commit as many as she chose and look at the lives of the Alaskan citizens that were affected!The tragedy is the aftermath and whats to come because of it. People have died and suffered because of the inaction of your Legislators.

  5. tomandlou, Thanks for joining the discussion here. Could you clarify for me what you are referring to when I say I 'distinguished between blatant and small ethics violations'?

    And as I pointed out in a comment above, level of education isn't an issue here, it's what you have to say. I hinted at education in the post only to give some context to how I got my understanding of these topics. Generally I don't mention that so people focus on the content not on me.

    One could make a strong argument that all ethical violations are equal. One could also make the opposing argument convincingly. In either case you would have to discuss lots of details about conditions and distinctions and impacts.

    Personally, I do think one missed $100 donation on a financial disclosure form is less significant than regularly lying to and hiding information from the public. Or taking a $40,000 campaign contribution in return for an legislative earmark.

    Perhaps you can explain why you think those are of equal weight.

    I'm not sure which people you are referring to who have died because of legislative inaction. I'm not denying the possibility that Alaska legislators could have but didn't pass laws that would have saved lives, but that's probably true of legislators in all states.

    What are you suggesting that is more significant in Alaska than elsewhere?

    Again, thanks for leaving your thoughts here.

  6. Steve With all due respect! To try to answer! I refer to "Free dinners Drinks etc" You seem to be talking about clearly, things that are or should be violations.Or are you saying tho wrong they are overlooked?My perception is that they don't matter much because they are too small ?Am I wrong?All ethics violations are equal! A mistake on a financial disclosure should not be a problem.I 'm sure if it begins to be a problem then it deserves a second look !On the other hand a$40,000 mistake deserves an investigation.I do not agree that any violation is less significant than another.The deaths I'm refering to are those that are Medicaid related.If SP did'nt know of them I would be astounded, she knew every enemy Etc,Etc.She was aware of the Doctor who did,nt agree with her abortion platform and had her fired.Lets put it this way if she did'nt know someone should be on the carpet.That looks unlikely.One more thing do you agree that in over 200 years of practice we should be able to recognize Faulty ethics and respond ethically.

  7. I just saw your pedigree! I have a feeling I'm way outclassed.Just the same I stick to my assessment but I am impressed! I would hope that you are in the forefront fighting for the right kind of reform.And thanks for being gentle.Tom

  8. Tomandlou, Thanks for the clarification. I didn't say free drinks were less important. I said they were 'less overt.' I was saying that the buying of free meals to curry favors was not as obvious and direct as how the Mexican drug cartels get policeman to do their bidding. (They kill them if they don't cooperate.) I agree with you that lobbyists giving legislators free meals sets up relationships where the legislators 'owe' the lobbyists. So I don't think we disagree there. Though many of these practices are legal.

    I still am not sure why you say they are all equal. If you tell your wife or girlfriend that she looks great but she doesn't, some would say that was a lie, even if your intent was to make her feel good.

    If a politician tells a voter a lie to make the voter feel good (and vote for him) then I think that is a much bigger violation. But we don't have to agree. There is a branch of philosophy that argues that you should never violate any of the standards you live by. But others argue that sometimes one value conflicts with another. Would you lie, for instance, to save a person's life? (The Nazis come to your door and you are hiding Jews for example.)

    "do you agree that in over 200 years of practice we should be able to recognize Faulty ethics and respond ethically."

    How about after 2000 years of practice? The Greeks, Confucius (5000 years), Christ, Buddha, Mohammad, etc.all discussed ethics. But it isn't as black and white as many would like.

    Some things are clearly unethical and 99.99% of people would agree. But other things are so clear. (Forcible rape.) Some less clear. (In some date rape situations, it may seem to the man that the woman was a willing partner.) Some used to be ok, but now they aren't. (Women used to be like property to their husbands and were expected to be obedient them.)

    The conflict between normal friendly relationships and professional relationships is not understood by many people. Business people who get into government and bring normal business ethics with them often do not understand that things they did in business are not acceptable in government.

    I'm not excusing any of these things. But I think if we simply condemn and do not try to understand, we won't make any headway in changing things.

    When I did ethics workshops for government employees, I would get them to give me ethical dilemmas they had faced. I'd do this before we met. In class, participants would discuss them. It was amazing how differently people reacted to the same stories. Some would say it was a clear violation. Others thought it was perfectly ok.

    On the extremes - the very wrong and the very right - most people agree. But in the middle the clarity you want just doesn't exist.

    How bad is driving 66mph in a 65 mph zone? 67? 68? 69? 70? ...85? 86?... When does it get to be a problem?


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