Establishing a Code of Conduct for Public Officials

This fall, millions of Americans will go to the polls to cast their ballot during the next general election. And while this exciting democratic process has been the backbone of our nation since its genesis, trust among elected public officials–those who are voted in by their supporters–is at an all-time low.

According to a 2019 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, trust in public officials has seen a consistent drop year over year. No matter the administration, no matter the office held, the public expects more from those they elect. One of the reasons why this may be so is that ethical lines may seem to be crossed, turning the public away. This means that conducting oneself while in office and working with a set code of ethics is more important than ever before.

Although some cities conduct ethics training on a regular basis for officials as required by state law (depending on the state), there still seems to be a lack of understanding of ethics and execution of certain codes to govern by.

How to Develop a Code of Conduct

From newly elected city council members to the city mayor who’s held office for a decade, each member of a governing body should be engaged in a set code of ethics for all officials. This can set the tone for officials who hold office in the future.

Some councils can look to other codes of policies developed in other cities or counties and borrow any guidelines that fit where they are at that time and where they hope to get to. Other councils may feel it best to start from scratch, thinking up their own principles, behaviors, and standards, then draft a rough code after a meeting.

From there, a code will have enough insight to be able to fine tune it, offering up an opportunity for all to provide thoughts and okay it before making it official and public.

A code of ethics should avoid trying to address every eventuality. In essence, if an outline is too dense and contains too much information, it will be hard to follow and may potentially be ignored altogether. A code should be kept general and relatable to all members involved.

As a whole, a code of ethics for public officials should include an emphasis on demonstrating honesty and integrity in all actions and statements. Officials should be encouraged to inspire public confidence in their local government and work for the common good, not their own interest. A code of ethics should also include language about respecting the proper roles of elected public officials and city staff in ensuring effective government.

Making sure the code of ethics is enforced and upheld is critical, but it is also important to take the time at regular intervals to conduct assessments in order to learn, grow, and move toward improvement.

It’s essential that a local government meet annually to evaluate how they are all performing under the code of ethics. This can provide everyone a chance to discuss what is working as well as identify areas of improvement. Amendments can be considered to the code of conduct as needs arise, but altogether, the goal should be to keep learning and growing, and work toward getting a good example for the public.

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