The Shared Ethics Advisory Commission recently hosted its eighth annual Ethics Summit with over 300 registrants. The keynote speaker was U.S. Attorney Tom Kirsch, who provided many important insights on the workings of his office. His presentation included a long list of indictments and convictions of Northwest Indiana elected officials and some public employees. The audience reacted with an audible groan and one participant later asked if SEAC’s efforts were doing any good.
One quick answer is that many (maybe most) of the convictions mentioned occurred before SEAC existed. But that is not a complete response to the questioner’s concerns.
SEAC’s mission is to help good people make the right decisions, that is, to help them from descending the proverbial “slippery slope.” Since SEAC has no enforcement powers, we cannot sanction malefactors, but we can raise the bar of what is expected of people in the public sphere.
If standards are not clear, expectations not set, attention not given to right behavior, everyone is left on his or her own to decide how to handle a situation that might not be totally clear. The “real world” has many shades of gray. For example, is it proper to accept a gift or a meal from a contractor; if so, how much is too much?
SEAC training focuses on practical case studies to provide a framework for public employees to think through situations they are likely to face. We know most public employees want to do the right thing, but just as with training on new equipment or learning accounting procedures, ethical decision-making needs to be explained so that employees have the knowledge to respond properly.
Training is the first — and an essential — step to obtaining any desired goal. But no amount of training can solve every concern. An employee ignoring his training can be injured by the machinery he uses. Same with a bookkeeper who, ignoring established procedures, takes a shortcut and ends up out of balance. So it is with ethics training. SEAC gives public employees the tools to make right decisions. From that point on, the employee has been informed, can no longer use the excuse “no one ever told me,” and will have to face the consequences of a violation.
SEAC believes that ethics training helps set standards leading to an ethics culture in the workplace. If everyone is trained on ethical decision-making and understands the expectations, then there is an element of peer pressure on everyone to do the right thing.
SEAC training has been validated by periodic surveys of employees in member communities. By an overwhelming percentage, employees state that they value ethics training. Moreover, comparing responses from trained and untrained employees, a significantly higher percentage of those who have been trained report that they know how to file an ethics complaint, say they would report unethical behavior if they saw it, believe their superiors would act on the complaint and that the action would be appropriate. Another survey is currently underway. Last time, 1,500 public employees responded. An even greater response is expected this time.
Ethics training is clearly one piece in the puzzle, but effective leadership, comprehensive personnel policies, vigorous law enforcement and vigilant journalists are also needed. Working together, all these inputs can produce a region to be proud of.