Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

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
  1. 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 organizational culture.
  2. Analysis
    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.
  3. Drafting
    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 models.
    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
  4. Implementation
    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.
  5. 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.

July 2010

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