Ctr. Ethics Column

The Value of Ethics Training

This is the first in a series of monthly columns written by individuals affiliated with the Center for Ethics. I have the privilege of serving as the executive director of the Center and I want to offer some thoughts about the state of ethical behavior in the public sector. It is interesting to witnesses the growth of ethics related legislation across the country and also in South Florida. There is a growing trend to mandate ethics training on an annual basis for our elected officials – whether they serve in Tallahassee or in our counties and municipalities. To assess whether mandatory ethics training is worthwhile depends on the desired outcomes. If the goal is to reduce the number of elected officials who behave unethically, then if more training is introduced and more officials avail themselves of these opportunities, the result should be fewer elected officials running afoul of the law. Obviously, there are other variables to consider, but I believe a commitment to training and education is more likely than not to reinforce the importance of ethical governance and decision-making.

Over the years, I have heard many elected officials comment that more ethics regulations accomplish very little, as your conscience should guide you and “good” people will not engage in unethical behaviors. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple due the complexities of our ethics laws and the fact that some of these provisions may actually fly in the face of sound, ethical judgment. Therefore, training provides officials with forums to learn about these laws and regulations, which may be foreign to them if they have spent their entire careers working outside of government. For example, the gift rules and the Sunshine Law may be alien concepts to individuals who have never served in government before assuming elective office. One of the misconceptions with ethics training and with ethics laws in general is that adherence to these standards classify one as an ethical public servant. What our officials need to understand is that these regulations represent a minimum standard of conduct and those agencies responsible for interpreting and enforcing these standards are not examining an official’s ethics. They are merely reviewing whether the actions taken are consistent with a set of regulations – generally appearances of impropriety are not covered by law. Consequently, an official can receive an opinion indicating a particular action or decision didn’t violate the law or may clear one of wrongdoing, but that doesn’t mean the official acted in an ethical manner.

In conclusion, I support legislation promoting ethics in government and mandatory ethics training for our elected officials, but there is much more to creating ethical public service than legislation and training.