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Recommendations in relation to government ethics policy

Stephen Bauld
Recommendations in relation to government ethics policy

The Bellamy Report on procurement practices made numerous recommendations in relation to ethics, including a number that would be beyond the resources of all but the largest cities, but the core of these recommendations was summarized in the following general principles which have potentially more widespread application.

The city should expand its current code of conduct for councillors and its conflict of interest policy for staff to include broader ethical considerations.

The codes of conduct should go beyond the minimum standards of behaviour and set out the highest ideas and values which all public servants should be working.

The code should be written in plain language that can be understood by all public servants as well as by the public.

It should reflect the difference in the roles of councillors and staff without setting different ethical standards.

Political staff should be required to adhere to the same ethical guidelines that apply to councillors and city staff. Councillors have their staff execute an agreement to abide by the city’s codes of ethics.

Canadian ethics bylaws and policies are relatively pedestrian in comparison to their American counterparts.

In the United States, municipal ethics ordinances often expand to campaign finance, contribution limits and public financing of campaigns, laws regarding lobbyists, open government or “sunshine” ordinances, as well as highly detailed rules relating to gifts to public officials.

Many have also created independent ethics commissions of various kinds, some of which operate with a full-time staff at arm’s length both to the local municipal council and the municipal administration.

Although some Canadian municipalities have appointed ethics commissioners, none of which I am aware have established comparable institutional arrangements adopted by such American cities as San Diego or Los Angeles.

In previous columns, I have discussed the various factors that must be taken in developing suitable procurement policies. In a paper on How to Make an Ethical Program Work, Mark Davis of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board advised that:

The purpose of ethics laws is to promote both the reality and the perception of integrity in the government by preventing unethical conduct before it occurs;

the focus of ethics law is therefore upon prevention not punishment;

ethics laws assume the vast majority of public servants are honest and want to do the right thing, and thus that those laws are not meant to catch corrupt officials;

ethics laws do not regulate morality, or even ethics, but conflicts (usually financial conflicts) between a public servant’s official duties and private interests (i.e., divided loyalty); and

ethics laws should encourage good people to serve in government by providing guidance to officials and reassurance to citizens that their public servants are serving the public and not themselves.

He goes on to propose that a proper ethics program must rest upon the “three pillars” of a clear, compressive, simple, sensible code of ethics; sensible transactional, application and annual disclosure; and effective administration that provides quick and confidential advice, training and education, public disclosure and reasonable enforcement.

There is a considerable attraction in these basic propositions. The difficulty is finding a manner of putting them into operation that is both fair and workable.

No one has yet developed the optimal ethics policy, much less worked at how to apply it fairly in practice.

I offer no magic solutions here.

However, I do hope to set out a number of concerns and observations that will prove of some use to those who are charged with developing a suitable package of ethical rules in a future column, at least in relation to municipal procurement.

Nevertheless, there are serious concerns in relation to fraternization between municipal staff and a municipality’s suppliers.

The relationship between such staff members and those suppliers must be professional and is tied to work done for the municipality.

Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at swbauld@purchasingci.com. Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.

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