Friday, April 21, 2006 | Scott Lewis tells us

Too much money? There’s an easy answer to that question: How much did bad ethics cost the city? Spending a little more than $1 million a year is a bargain even if it eliminates only half the financial misdealing that ultimately is financed out of the taxpayer’s wallet. Even if an ethics program had cut the size of the pension debacle in half, a mil a year would have been a great investment. Bad ethics is bad government.

Perhaps Lewis’ point is a different one. Perhaps he thinks that, no matter how much is spent, it won’t make any difference – or at least it’s not certain enough that it will work. In this case, then, spending even $1 is a waste. He is careful not to criticize the new ethics and integrity officer, so his criticisms must be about the very idea of the program, not the people chosen to carry it out.

What kind of foundation is this pessimism based on? Has he examined other local governments that have tried this out? Lewis mentions nothing along these lines, despite his long-professed desire to look at the facts of a case.

It could be a strong argument if Lewis surveyed other local governments that had tried this approach and if he found that it failed. But there are plenty of success stories out there: Santa Clara under Judy Nadler’s leadership; the ethics program in Phoenix; and many others. If San Diego’s program accomplishes even half of what it hopes to attain, the city’s money will have been well spent.

When ethics and integrity programs work well, they accomplish two things. First, they increase compliance – fewer people violate the law, and a higher percentage of those who do violate it get caught. Much of the compliance issue is handled in San Diego through the Ethics Commission, but its mandate is severely restricted and it can only respond to external complaints.

The charter of the Ethics Commission has to be structured in such a way that it is able to catch thing that go wrong, especially big things. On some level, the font size used in a campaign poster may be an important issue, but it hardly touches on the real ethical issues in the city – issues of greed, political favoritism, undue economic influence, and the like.

The second component of ethics and integrity programs is more important: it is the striving for excellence. We could have an entire city that followed the rules perfectly, and it could still be a mediocre city. Compliance is not enough. The function of an ethics and integrity office is to help city employees at all levels develop a clearer sense of their own values and the ways in which they can best serve the citizens of San Diego through their work as city employees.

This is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach, nor is it top-down. City employees must ask themselves how they can best serve the city in their official roles, and then streamline government structures in such a way as to facilitate that service in the most cost-effective way possible. The ethics and integrity officer in a city supplies precisely that leadership, and it goes far beyond compliance.

Finally, we have to ask what alternative Lewis is proposing. He’s saying he’s all for ethics, but it seems that he’s primarily in favor of it when it comes for free and doesn’t involve hard work. Do we just throw up our arms in despair and, like a defeated Army TV commercial, say, “Well, San Diego, I guess that’s all we can be?”

Lawrence M. Hinman is the director of the Values Institute and a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego. He writes widely in the area of applied ethics. He is the author of two widely-used texts in ethics, the founder of Ethics Updates and was a member of Jerry Sanders’ transition team and leadership committee, which developed the job description for the director of the new Office of Ethics and Integrity.

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