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Studying The Past And Predicting the Future

Friday, Dec. 17, 2010
When something goes wrong or a student makes a mistake, educators are likely to ask, “what can we learn from this experience?”
In looking ahead to the government ethics stories I predict will be in the headlines in 2011, I’m reflecting on what went wrong this year and trying to imagine what we have learned, and how or if things will change.
Reviewing the past is easy; predicting the future is difficult. Nevertheless, here are the five topics I believe we will be talking about in the months ahead:
·     Conflicts of interest. We used to think that a conflict was clearly defined and applied to an individual and a vote. Things have changed. We are now seeing all kinds of conflicts of interest surfacing – institutional, personal, financial, political. The “sleeper” is the conflict that exists when public officials are involved in foundations, non-profits, and similar organizations that benefit the community but also benefit the office holder.
·     Campaign finance and the influence of money. Record amounts of money were spent across the nation on the November election, and a significant portion came through 501c 4 organizations that are not subject to the strict reporting requirements we need in campaigns. And while the defeat of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in their self-funded campaigns may lead us to conclude that personal wealth cannot buy an election, there are results in other races that prove otherwise.
·     Increased use of social media. At the Conference on Governmental Ethics Laws (COGEL) conference I attended recently, there was much talk about the use of social media in government and politics. I predict more government agencies, officeholders, candidates, and voters will be using Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. This presents many opportunities, but also many challenges. As long as comments can be made anonymously and statements posted without any verification as to factual content, we are bound to have problems. And public officials will need to remember that a majority of councilmembers chatting on Facebook about city business is no different than conducting business behind closed doors – it’s illegal.
·     The private lives of public officials.  While sexual misconduct has captured most of the headlines in the past, I expect there will be some new subjects that surface in this area of personal conduct. Increasingly, the background and history of an individual can come back to haunt, even 20 or more years later. (And there are many stories captured on cell phones that make it to YouTube.) There are also high-stakes financial dealings that may receive more attention in the coming year.
·     Partisan polarization. The emergence of the Tea Party has created an unprecedented degree of chaos and partisan bickering on the local, state, and national level. Budgets have been stalled, bills have languished, and rhetoric has overtaken honest debate. I’ve heard people talk about the “super minority” and “super majority” in terms that signal a long, difficult legislative year ahead.
Let me know what you think will be making headlines next year. Post your comments here or on my Twitter account : her_honor.

Tags: campaign finance, Carly Fiorina, conflicts of interests, Council on Governmental Laws (COGEL), Facebook, Meg Whitman, partisan politics, private lives of public officials, social media, Twitter, YouTube

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