Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman
These materials were prepared for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics program in Government Ethics by Senior Fellow Judy Nadler and Communications Director Miriam Schulman. The Center provides training in local government ethics for public officials. For more information, contact Hana Callaghan.
What are conflicts of interest?
Because of the multiple roles individuals play in their daily lives, they inherently possess many different interests and loyalties. At any given time these interests may compete. Such conflicts are a part of life and are unavoidable. Public officials, as stewards of the public trust, are required to put the public's interest before their own. Impropriety occurs when an officeholder, faced with conflicting interests, puts his or her personal or financial interest ahead of the public interest. In the simplest terms, the official reaps a monetary or other reward from a decision made in his or her public capacity.
The most common conflicts in local government happen when officeholders face a vote on real property/land use issues that affect their own holdings. Other examples include voting to grant a benefit to a company in which the officeholder owns stock or even to a non-profit organization on whose board the officeholder may sit.
When a conflict of interest is possible, an officeholder is expected to abstain from the discussion and the vote.
What do conflicts of interest have to do with ethics?
Public service is always about protecting the common good, which may be defined as the common conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone-police, fire, parks, libraries, and other services. A public servant must always put the common good ahead of any personal, financial, or political benefit they might receive from a decision about such matters as where to situate a park or who should collect the garbage.
Also, conflicts of interest interfere with the basic ethical principle of fairness-treating everyone the same. A public official should not take unfair advantage of his or her position by voting on a matter that could benefit them at the expense of others.
Finally, conflicts of interest undermine trust. They make the public lose faith in the integrity of governmental decision-making processes.
What ethical dilemmas do conflicts of interest present?
Many times, government officials honestly believe that they are not being unduly influenced by their personal stake in an issue. They may feel, to the contrary, that their interest in the matter gives them special insight into the subject. A city councilmember who ran on a platform of revitalizing the downtown, for example, may feel entirely justified in supporting measures to improve the area, even if part of the benefit of such improvement might go to their own business. They might argue that they understand the problems of a downtown business because they own one. They might claim, further, that their constituents elected them specifically to represent this interest.
But conflict of interest laws prevent such partiality. First, it's almost impossible for individuals to determine whether they are being fair when their self-interest is involved. Also, as the Institute for Local Self-Government puts it, "The law is aimed at the perception, as well as the reality, that a public officials personal interests may influence a decision." Even the appearance of impropriety undermines the public's faith that the process is fair.
Another common misconception about conflicts of interest is that officeholders are absolved of their responsibility merely by being transparent about their stake in the issue. It is not sufficient for government officials to make conflicts public. They must take themselves out of the decision-making process altogether.
This includes discussion and debate as well as actual voting. Abstention is only half the requirement. A public official is also expected to refrain from public pronouncements and private arm twisting on decisions in which he or she has an interest.
Note, also, that the interest may be personal as well as financial. Helping one's fraternal order to obtain rent-free space in a public building is a form of conflict of interest, especially if it improves one's standing in the organization. Being elected president of a community group because of such favors might prove to be in an officeholder's personal and political interest when the next election rolls around. Conversely, public office should not be used to punish one's personal and political enemies. Voting no on your annoying neighbor's reasonable zoning waiver request is another form of putting private ahead of public interest.