Developing a Code of Ethics for Student Government
This How-To Guide outlines strategies to effectively develop
and implement a code of ethics and values for your student government.
In 2009-10, Santa Clara University's student government partnered
with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics to create a document
that provides clear, positive statements of ethical behavior
reflecting the core values of the community. Three crucial themes
emerged throughout this process which are applicable to all
organizations: (1) "buy in" is crucial, and this is
accomplished by soliciting feedback consistently; (2) a full-year
is necessary for this project; (3) one or two students need
to assume the primary responsibility for this effort.
The following five steps reflect Santa Clara University's project
specifically, and can be adapted to account for the particular
needs and resources of your organization.
Five Key Steps
- Organizational Assessment
The first stage of this process was centered on a few fundamental
questions, such as: What is the size/scope of the organization?
What are the greatest ethical challenges that the organization
faces? How, if at all, are the organization's values articulated
currently? The primary drafter of the code developed a survey
to answer these questions. Surveys were administered to all
student government representatives during the annual two-day
retreat/training in the fall. Additionally, everyone was asked
to come to the workshop having thought about the question,
"What examples come to mind of the Santa Clara community
acting at its best?" The implementation of the initial
survey was a great opportunity to discuss the findings, the
role of the code, and how it could be incorporated into the
Once all of the survey data was compiled, the primary drafter
sorted through the responses and identified salient themes.
In light of this analysis, the primary drafter determined
the general structure of the code by contemplating some of
the following questions: Will the code be more aspirational
or proscriptive? How many values are needed to reflect the
core mission and concerns of the organization? An important
element of Santa Clara's code is its positive approach.
The first draft of the code included values that were mentioned
explicitly by respondents, and some suggested by the primary
drafter to represent complex or ambiguous concepts. Existing
local and state government ethics codes were consulted as
A preamble was created to properly frame the code within the
existing governing documents, and much of the language was
quoted directly from the student government's Constitution.
The code was then posted on an online message board to enable
member feedback. Access to this forum was restricted to student
government representatives. All responses were considered
thoroughly, and some suggestions were included in the subsequent
drafts. Updates regarding the development of the code were
announced at the weekly Senate meetings. It is important to
note that faculty and administration input was reserved for
the final stages of the process. I
The implementation process, in which the code was disseminated,
referenced and discussed was an opportunity to further reflect
on ethical values. The code was distributed to the entire
student body via email, and voted on the following week. The
election formally introduced the code into the student government's
Constitution. Being part of a ballot measure approved by the
entire campus community helped increase public awareness of
ethics issues and accountability. Upon the passage of the
code, the primary drafter posed several questions to the members
of the organization: How should the code be disseminated?
Can it be put on bookmarks, posters, plaques, business cards,
the organization's website, etc.? Can the school newspaper
feature the release of the final product? A commemorative
copy of the code was presented to the President of SCU at
the transition ceremony, and a political science professor
spoke about the importance of ethical governance.
- Continuity Year-to-Year
Due to the high turnover rate of student government, it is
imperative that incoming representatives assume responsibility
for the code. To ensure the future relevance and validity
of the code, the primary drafter worked with faculty and administration
to determine how the provisions of the code can be incorporated
into orientation programs and other organizational training
efforts. The annual transition process is an opportunity to
review the code and ensure that it continues to reflect the
mission of the organization.
The organization will continue to consider how to best recognize
outstanding ethical behavior, and make additional changes
to the code as needed. One question, once incorporated, is
whether to include specific enforcement policies, or leave
it purely aspirational. Ultimately, it is imperative that
representatives feel comfortable addressing inadequacies in
the system and suggesting potential means for improvement.