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Getting Public Employees Off to a Good Start

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Question:

The public agency where I work takes ethics very seriously. I am particularly concerned with issues and reports involving legal and ethical missteps by public agency staff. Some media headlines have described instances of local agency employees using agency credit cards for personal purchases, uniformed public works employees being seen (and videotaped) drinking at lunch, employees being caught selling surplus agency property, agency supervisors filmed using public vehicles for personal errands and public employees going bowling during work hours (apparently a team-building exercise). These stories and reports must be very embarrassing to the leaders of the public agencies involved.

What can be done to prevent such lapses of judgment? How does one sensitize the public agency’s workforce to the special obligations of being a public agency staff member?

Answer:

There is no silver bullet. One strategy is to monitor media reports for examples that can serve as a vehicle for continuing the dialogue within an agency about the importance of public perception and values-based decision making. These kinds of reports can be a safe jumping-off point for supervisors to explore, both at the management level and with their staff, the type of thinking that may have led to the actions covered by the media.

A frequent blind spot for public employees is not thinking how such behavior could be cast in the most unflattering light by a reporter or blogger. Reminding staff that public employees’ behavior is subject to ongoing scrutiny is one strategy to help reduce that blind spot.

Another strategy, discussed in the Institute for Local Government (ILG) publication Promoting Personal and Organizational Ethics (www.ca-ilg.org/ppoe), is to raise these issues during the hiring process. Emphasizing the agency’s mission and values during the recruitment and hiring process can help highlight the importance of ethics to the organization. Asking questions in the interview process that assess how a candidate might handle a difficult work-related ethical situation is another element of this strategy.

Implementing policies and practices that reinforce and promote legal and ethical behavior can help an agency prevent missteps. For example, many public agencies have greatly limited access to agency credit cards, for both staff and elected officials, as the result of scandals related to the misuse of such cards for personal purposes.

Publicizing these policies and practices is essential for such measures to succeed. However, policies can go only so far. The goal is for staff to understand the larger goals that the policies are trying to achieve — typically promoting public trust and confidence in the agency’s workforce.

The orientation process offers another opportunity to send an early and important message about the value the agency places on public trust and confidence. This can be achieved by letting those new to public service know that public employment can be significantly different from working in the private sector and informing them about what’s not OK and why.

To assist local agencies in this process, ILG offers sample language and a chart resource for local agencies to consider and/or adapt for use in their employee orientation materials.

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