Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Sunshine Reform

Judy Nadler, Center senior fellow in government ethics, delivered this testimony to the San Jose City Council September 27, 2007.

Thank you, Mayor Reed, for the opportunity to speak on ethics in San Jose city government.

As you know, I serve on the Sunshine Reform Task Force and have had the opportunity over the past year and a half to work with community volunteers, city staff, and the public in discussing openness in government and recommending changes to improve the transparency and responsiveness of City Hall. Tonight I’m going to give you a brief update on what my subcommittee, the Ethics and Conduct subcommittee, is recommending. I’d like then to take a few minutes to speak generally about the importance of creating, strengthening, and maintaining a culture of ethics at City Hall.

Our subcommittee seeks to reinforce the importance of intent – that the sunshine reforms are not simply a list of new rules that must be followed—but that they are important processes whereby the city is able to do a better job in serving the public. To that end, we are recommending an overarching statement to introduce our part of the ordinance and also suggest the ordinance itself have a statement of intent outlining the purpose and value of the reforms.

Specifically, we are looking at three areas to augment the work being done by other subcommittees of the task force. First, conflicts of interest: we are underscoring the necessity of identifying and disclosing potential conflicts and the importance of council members to recuse themselves from the decision-making process when an actual conflict arises. Further, we believe that in posting all mayor and councilmember’s contribution reports on-line we will address the issue of conflicts.

Further, we are suggesting that a code of conduct, similar to the one adopted by the Sunshine Reform Task Force, be adopted by all policy bodies, ancillary bodies, non-governmental bodies, City departments, employees, vendors, elected officials and volunteers. This code of conduct would be posted on the city’s Web site or printed public educational materials.

It is also recommended that the city’s ethical standards be printed in a prominent place, such as on employment applications, annual reports, and the like.

None of the reforms are likely to “take hold” if people do not know about them, understand them, and believe that they apply to the daily tasks involved with conducting the public’s business. It would, therefore, be important to have all city and council staff educated about the sunshine ordinance as it is being implemented, and follow-up ethics education on an ongoing basis. Every educational opportunity offered to public officials would benefit from an ethics and conduct component.

Now, to the issue of a culture of ethics. Absent a culture that supports and rewards ethical behavior, the ordinance will remain simply words on paper.

I recently heard a great working definition of culture, which applies in the context of organizations. “Culture is the set of enduring and underlying assumptions and norms that determine how things are actually done in the organization.” Note that this does not mention rules, as there are not enough rules in the world to address the various behaviors that one might encounter in the day–to-day decisions we make.

So how do we create a culture of ethics?
Here are the five key ingredients:

Leadership: public policy leaders make ethics a priority and demonstrate that in word and deed
Commitment: all involved make the time, budget the money, and plan the program
Collaboration: all the stakeholders make the time to plan the program and develop consensus
Implementation: the program includes a strategy for making ethics an integral part of the organization
Reflection and renewal: ongoing assessment includes annual re-adoption of the program and exploration of ways to communicate with employees, vendors, media, and the public

This is important work that requires sustained effort. Thank you, Mayor Reed, for your leadership and your commitment to restoring the public’s trust.

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