“Misnomer” Spoken Here. “Government Ethics” is to “Ethics” as . . . .

July 8th, 2010 4:10 pm

One of the small burdens of being a “Government-ethics-type,” as they might say in the Navy, is that about once a week someone will pass by and say something like “Keep me ethical,” or “I’m ethical. How are you?” Introduced at training presentations, you hear “Here to keep us all on the straight and narrow . . .” Not a major offense, really. At least it shows that you are a player in their workday. But it does make you feel like “ethics” is the very worst title one could give to what we do.

“Ethics,” in some minds, is forever tied to Aristotilian contemplations of “virtue.” To others, we represent the staunch, inflexible defenders of bureaucratic morality–a sort of Federal Chaplain service, if you will, admonishing and absolving governmental sinners. Fact is, the worst sinner, from a moral perspective, still can be perfectly ethical in our eyes. Conversely, a recognized paragon of virtue can be forced into resignation from criticism over a relatively minor ethical lapse—certainly one that Aristotle would have bypassed. There are still others who, seeing “ethics” on our door, feel that we defend what they see as administrative actions that cause cruelty to small furry animals [we love animals], or creation of all sorts of microbial miscreants [there are no known scientists in here]. Still others feel that we investigate allegations of “whatever” that no one else will touch—kind of an “Omni-Ethspector General.”

Hopefully, the reader knows that we are none of the above. So, if “ethics” is inaccurate—perhaps too lofty and maybe a bit self-righteous, what should we call what we do?

Other office titles currently in use don’t seem to provide much help. “Compliance” is far too authoritarian—seemingly requiring us to wear monocles and walk in a manner in which the knees are not permitted to flex naturally [small countries should be on the alert]. “Integrity” is just too pompous—as if we can all maintain perfect posture for that long. “Impartiality” or “fairness” seems too vague as if there are no objective standards to address. The Department of Defense uses “Standards of Conduct Office,” but that seems to indicate that everything that a good ethics (sorry) advisor must tell you comes from that one source, making it into some sort of Talisman or Rosetta Stone. “Ethics,” as it has grown with the complexity in all else governmental, is about much more than that.

For example, to those experienced in governmental operations, we may be an all-purpose early warning system. A good ethics advisor needs to “know the neighborhood” of similar fields related to ethics. Granted, our small jurisdiction is limited to the Federal Bribery and Conflict of interest statutes, the Standards of Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch, the Hatch Act, and a few other statutes and regulations. However, our arena intersects with so many other legal and procedural specialties that limiting one’s advice solely to what is within our bailiwick and omitting issues that we see but over which we have no jurisdiction, can be a prescription for disaster. In these circumstances, by seeing and raising potential appropriations, procurement, discrimination, prohibited personnel practices, labor, program administration, Constitutional, and other issues, we can help a client see the need to seek broader legal advice. So, maybe we are an “Office of Red Flags” though that sounds too much a theme park.

At the same time, just emerging from a Presidential Transition with its swift influx of high-energy political appointees, many of whom have had no prior experience in government, we may take on an almost socio-anthropological role. Like Lewis and Clark traveling through tribal territories on the way to the Pacific, an energetic political appointee who has never worked IN the Federal government (worse yet, any government) before is entering the territory of a vastly different culture [Washington, D.C., home of the Federal Government and all interests tied directly to it]. On such an individual it may not dawn that they are in a foreign environment with certain mores, prescriptions, rites, rituals, and courtesies that the wise respect and the unwary ignore at their own peril—irrespective of whether any of it makes sense. In our DC-Federal environment, “ethics,” over two centuries, has become a “sacred” word which is acknowledged through the performance or non-performance of certain specific practices. In this sense, our object is to get this person to do things in a way that, if it does not please, at least does not offend the inhabitants to a degree that they will rise up and waylay our traveler on the way to accomplishing what he or she came here to do. In this sense, do we become more like Washington “Cultural Liaisons?”

Whatever one calls what we do, one thing remains consistent: we simply advise. We do not conduct inquisitions and rarely have the authority to order anything. Intentionally misquoting Blanche DuBois’ famous line from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, we must in some sense “depend on the authority of others.” We simply read the tea leaves at the intersection of one’s outside interests/affiliations and their public duties. The Federal employee is the determiner of whether he or she is going to take a certain action or not and whether, in that process, he or she will abide by or not abide by our best judgment. Sadly, we are advisors; we cannot tell you to take any given action. The choice is yours. So, maybe we are simply “Employee Conduct Risk Assessors.”

In any case, if you can think of a better title, we’re all ears.

Ray Sheehan
Senior Ethics Advisor, Ethos, LLC