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Her Honor

Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.

The following postings have been filtered by tag public discourse. clear filter
  •  When Political Titles Don't Matter

    Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2011

    Are you an optimist or pessimist? Would you describe yourself as conservative, moderate, or liberal? How would others describe you – friends and enemies? Does it matter?

    As the stakes get higher and the rhetoric more critical, I suggest we shed those descriptors and focus on what the people want: public servants who act in the best interest of their constituents.

    The recent release of the “full” birth certificate of President Obama can serve as an example of months of focusing on the smaller items while the really difficult matters remain log jammed.

    Titles like senator, mayor, councilmember, and the like should be enough to let the voters know where to go when they have a concern or problem.

    Furthering a divide among elected officials by demonizing or characterizing them on any other basis seems counterproductive.

  •  Don't Delete This

    Friday, Feb. 25, 2011


    Old-fashioned government record keeping relied on paper, microfilm, and a basement or vault to store documents. Access was cumbersome and expensive, something reserved for investigative reporters or lawyers.
    Electronic record keeping allows instant access, in some cases “real time” access to the decisions being made on behalf of the public. Although these electronic records – emails, voice messages, tweets, audio or video recordings – are subject to public records laws, not everyone complies.
    The latest example of selective retention of public documents involves a University of Iowa athletic official who advised his colleagues to “delete this email after reading it.” The email in question involved internal discussions about the hospitalization of athletes after a strenuous workout, and how best to handle media inquiries.
    Iowa’s State Records Commission only covers certain “formal” documents be saved for specific amounts of time. The interpretation varies widely within state agencies. The Cedar Rapids city council uses its own discretion. The governor keeps everything. “It requires a significant amount of storage, but we want to have those for transparency,” says the governor’s spokesman.
    To retrieve deleted documents from the University of Iowa costs a minimum of $75 for computer services, and $75 per hour after that. Fees such as these are hardly accessible or affordable.
    Transparency is linked to public trust.  Kathleen Richardson of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council says it best, “We live in a time when people are increasingly suspicious of government employees. The more accountability the better.”



  •  Best And Worst Of 2010

    Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010
    As I reflect on all that has transpired in 2010 there are so many scandals to choose from I honestly had a tough time deciding on the top five contenders for my "worst behavior in government list."  Of more concern, it was difficult to identify a five really great things happening in the area of government. (I sincerely hope that changes in the coming year.)
    I’ll begin with the worst so that we can end on a positive note. The list is incomplete and in no particular order.
    ·      Pay scandal in Bell, California. News that the city manager was drawing more than $800,000 in salary sent shock waves throughout the country and made international news. Made elected officials and administrators look like crooks.
    ·      On-going scandal involving former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. (This is so big it counts as two.)
           Currently serving time in prison for earlier offenses, Kilpatrick is now the subject of a new, 38-count indictment by the Federal Grand Jury. A six-year investigation showed he and his father along with other city officials engaged in fraud, corruption, racketeering, extortion, bribery, and other crimes. Using both his former state office and his power as mayor Kilpatrick is accused of extorting millions of dollars from contractors and abusing the public’s trust. As U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade put it: “If you steal from the taxpayers, you are going to be held accountable. Getting out of office does not get you off the hook.”
    ·      Supreme Court decision on Citizens United. This action allows millions of dollars spent on campaigns to go unreported, and opens the door for further erosion of transparency and accountability in political campaigns.
    ·      Representative Charles Rangel. After serving decades in Congress, Rangel stood before his colleagues and was publicly rebuked. The lesson here: no matter how much you do to help your constituents, you have ethical obligations as an elected official. No one is above the law, or above the ethical standards we expect in public servants.
    • After years of corruption, Alabama has adopted 7 ethics bills. Rather than accept the “lame duck” status of an outgoing governor, Bob Riley pushed for adoption of the legislation, which was passed at 3 a.m.
    • More government agencies embrace transparency. A new “app” called iOpenGov gives free access to California laws on open government and related issues. A good idea for the other 49 states.
    • Jacksonville, Florida caps a multi-year effort by passing a charter change (with a 17-0 vote) that incorporates ethics provisions removed in the 1970s. Among the new provisions: Establishing an ethics commission with more independence; having the ethics officer report to the ethics commission; and creating a system for commission fines and penalties. This grass-roots effort is a model for other cities hoping to unite diverse constituencies to encourage positive change.
    • The election of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. This has nothing to do with the candidates or their issues – I just think it’s great to have the voters take the time and make the effort to write “Murkowski” on their ballots.
    • The Jon Stewart – Steven Colbert rally on the Great Mall in Washington, D.C. I’m betting some people were more excited about this event than they were about any inauguration. Not only did the rally raise awareness of the need for citizen involvement and civil discourse, it showed that politics and public policy could actually be fun, if not funny.
    Tomorrow I’ll give my predictions for 2011. In the meantime, let me know what you think of the list. Do you agree? Disagree? What would you add or subtract?


  •  Online Town Hall Invites Civic Dialog

    Monday, Nov. 1, 2010

    Localocracy is one of those madeup words that is difficult to pronounce but well worth the effort.

    The word refers to an online "town common where registered voters using real names can weigh in on local issues." Now currently up and running in four  Massachusetts cities, Localocracy is designed to benefit three important constituencies in every community: the citizens, the government, and the media.

    Citizens have the chance to learn more about community issues; public officials are able to communicate with residents, prioritize needs, and encourage engagement; and the media can offer "hyperlocal" coverage of events and people.

    Founded in 2008, the social media site has garnered great reviews. Howard Weaver, former news executive at the McClatchy Company said "It gives people of all ages another outlet for learning about community issues and participating in our government. It's like the perfect union of town meeting and modern technology."

    Check it out and see for yourself.


  •  Moderating Political Debate In The Media

    Friday, Oct. 22, 2010

    In today's environment, the news story that is published or aired is sometimes not as interesting as what follows under "reader/listener comments."

    Increasingly these anonymous remarks are turning into vile diatribes rather than thoughtful commentary, leading some news outlets to suspend or modify the comments option.

    Many of the postings appear in the form of irrelevant and nasty remarks about the subject of the story, the reporter, or the news outlet. Most are offensive due to racial, gender, or other types of slurs.

    While people in public life know they are subject to the "slings and arrows" of those who disagree or dislike them, some of these attacks are of a very personal nature, and are not appropriate in any context.

    This type of ranting does nothing to further civil discourse. Rather than cutting off comments, perhaps it would be helpful to have an on-line moderator to encourage the exchange of ideas, rather than killing them.



  •  How Do You Teach Civility?

    Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010

    When I tell people I do workshops on ethics in government, they often ask "How can you teach someone to be ethical?"

    That question probably comes up for the people at the Institute for Civility in Government, who offer "civility workshops" and trainings for organizations.They wll be featured at the upcoming National Conference of State Legislators meeting.

    The non-profit group "aims to build civility in a society that increasingly tilts towards uncivil speech and actions."

    While civility impacts all levels of society, the Institute focuses on government, believing that understanding the way we approach governing is as important as any positions we may take.

    The workshops are divided into four parts:

    • Know thyself/differences are enriching
    • Listen with your heart, mind and strength
    • Help comes from unexpected places
    • One is powerful, but numbers count

    Do you have any examples of the damage done by uncivil discourse? What techniques have you employed to create an open environment that fosters respect?

    Post your answers here, and help share the commitment to build a more civil society.

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