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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas for Public Officials

city hall

city hall

Hana Callaghan

For a citizenry to retain its trust in government, it must have confidence that those in public service are at all times acting in the best interest of the public. As stewards of the public trust, government leaders and employees have a fiduciary responsibility to act in a manner that is fair and unbiased, that is loyal to the public by putting public interest before personal gain, and that fulfills duties of competency, integrity, accountability, and transparency. In fulfilling these duties, public officials will encounter predictable ethical dilemmas which arise out of their role as public servants. These include:

Dilemmas Involving Fairness

What matters potentially influence your ability to work in the public interest and represent all constituents equally and fairly?
Are you favoring family, friends, or neighbors over another petitioner?
Are you favoring a campaign contributor over another constituent?
Can you hire friends or family?
Can you give unpaid internships to friends or family?
Can you appoint friends or family to commissions?
Are you disfavoring a constituent who supported an opponent?
Is your vote biased against a proposal of a colleague who worked against your election?
Is your vote biased in favor of a proposal of a colleague who has promised to vote your way on another matter?
Are you favoring the agenda of your party over a policy you believe to be good for the community?
Are you giving all of your constituents equal access?
Are you allowing all parties the right to be heard at public meetings?
What is a fair process for bidders on city contracts?
What process is fair in labor negotiations with public employees?

Dilemmas Involving Conflicts between Personal Interests and the Public's Interest

Do you have personal interests that conflict with your duty of loyalty to the public you have been elected to serve?
Are there outside or future employment considerations that conflict with your public duty?
Are there conflicts between your duty to your family that may affect your decision making?
Is the pursuit of personal financial gains taking precedent over good governance?
Is the interest in furthering personal, community, or political relationships conflicting with your public duties?
Do you use the indicia of your office for personal gain?
Do you use public resources for personal or political purposes?
How do you deal with conflicting public duties inherent in serving both as a council member and as a member of a commission, agency, board, or district?
Can you use confidential information learned in office for purposes outside of official business?
Do you recuse yourself from participating in decisions involving parties with whom you have a relationship or subjects in which you have an interest?
Have you resigned from organizations in which membership may give rise to future conflicts?
Do you avoid the appearance of an improper conflict even if you personally believe you can act in an unbiased manner?

Dilemmas Involving the Faithful Execution of your Official Duties

Can you competently fulfill the responsibilities of your office?
Do you diligently attend all meetings to the best of your abilities?
Do you regularly participate in the decision-making process, except when you have a conflict which prohibits your participation?
Have you made yourself knowledgeable on all issues before you?
Do you always exercise your independent judgment?
Is it appropriate to ignore staff recommendations and substitute your own judgment?
Can you personally investigate issues?
When, and how, can you seek outside advice or counsel on an issue?
Is it proper to introduce sponsored legislation?
Do your constituents deserve a public explanation from you on all votes you have cast or decisions you have made?
Is it ethical to delay a decision or obfuscate an opinion because of timing in an election cycle?
Were you elected to use your best judgment?
Were you elected to represent the views of the majority of your constituents?
Were you elected to represent the views of those who voted for you?
Do you follow the edicts of your party even if they conflict with your personal views?
Is it permissible to introduce legislation solely to create a record for your campaign?
Is your first commitment to consider the needs of your community, district, city, state, or nation?
Should you remain independent when joining a voting bloc may be more conducive to achieving your policy goals?
Should you ever exchange promises to vote for another's proposed legislation in return for their promise to vote for yours?
What are your obligations to subsequently follow the rule of the majority when you argued for an opposite result?
Are you respectful of staff roles, responsibilities, and time?
Should you be a whistle blower even if means potentially derailing a policy objective you are pursuing?
When you speak with the press do you distinguish between official representations and personal views?

Dilemmas Involving Acting with Integrity

Do you conduct yourself honestly and with the integrity expected from public officials?
Are you truthful in all your dealings with colleagues, constituents, and the press?
Are you willing to speak truth to power?
Are you truthful in all political campaign communications?
Should you use an opponent's voting record out of context?
Should you employ innuendo and inference when discussing a political or governmental opponent?
Do you have the strengths of your convictions and can you withstand pressure to influence your independent judgment?
Can you resist temptation to take advantage of your position for personal gain?
To what extent can you accept gifts?
To what extent can you allow gifts to family members and others associated with you?
Is the offer of college admission or a grant of an honorary degree to someone close to you considered a gift if you are engaging in matters that effect that educational institution?
If your family member is offered a job by someone with official business before you, is that considered a gift to you?
To what extent are contributions to a charity you favor considered gifts to you?
Does it make a difference if you know that a quid pro quo is expected in return for an otherwise legally acceptable gift?
Even if a gift is legally permitted and does not in fact compromise you, should you accept it if it creates the appearance of impropriety?
Can you solicit preferential treatment for yourself or those close to you?
Can you use political contributions for personal purposes?
Should you refuse gifts or political contributions near the close of the legislative session when most legislative decisions are made?
How do you deal with a campaign contributor who is subsequently pushing a specific agenda?
How do you deal with labor negotiations when you have accepted contributions from a public sector union?
Can you enter into a romantic relationship with a colleague or a member of your staff?
Can you enter into a romantic relationship with someone who has business before your governing body?
Can you enter into a romantic relationship with a member of the opposition?
Must you time negative campaign communications so that your opponent has time to respond?
Is developing political IOUs a necessary evil to accomplish your goals?
Does your conduct conform to generally accepted principles of civility toward constituents, elected colleagues, and staff?

Dilemmas Involving Accountability

To maintain the public trust do you act in a manner that is transparent and is accountable to your constituents?
Do you comply with all public record laws?
Do you keep proper financial records?
What communications are you required to keep?
Do you frequently inform the citizenry of what is happening in your legislative body or agency?
Are you responsive to press inquiries?
Are conversations about public business on your private email or personal social media page part of the public record?
Do you have an ethical duty to admit to wrong doing even if you do not have a legal duty to implicate yourself?
Do you comport with all required open meeting laws?
Can you meet unofficially with union members outside of the collective bargaining process?
Under what circumstances can you meet or communicate with developers?
Under what circumstances can you meet with contractors bidding on public projects?
Are closed Facebook groups where you are friends with other official decision makers considered meetings?
Are sequential emails to individual decision makers considered meetings?
Are comments posted on your personal, campaign, or government blog considered a meeting?
Do you need to make your personal calendar available to the public?
Are conferences attended by you and your colleagues considered meetings?
Are public ceremonial events considered meetings?
Are you allowed to meet socially with colleagues?

We invite you to contribute to our list of unavoidable ethical dilemmas. Please send your ideas and comments to Government Ethics Director Hana Callaghan

July 2014

Jul 24, 2014
Government Ethics Stories