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Are Ethics Really a Thing if They Are Not Written Down?

I’ve heard more than a few times that ethics are what you do when nobody is watching. Most people will do what they are supposed to do while others are looking on, and the most ethical people will continue to do that same thing when the lights and microphones are off, and when nobody is paying attention.


Ethics is a topic that comes up very regularly in local government. The topic usually emerges during the election campaign and continues through the orientation, and onward as a team of elected officials is brought together to govern in the best interests of the whole community for the duration of the time together.


The Golden Rule generally applies, and if it were that simple, there would be no need for codes of conduct, codes of ethics, integrity commissioners, or council covenants. Throw power into the mix though, and ethics sometimes become questionable – or rather the adherence to ethical practice becomes somewhat more fragile.


Council codes of conduct or codes of ethics are becoming more and more prominent across the local government landscape, sometimes instituted voluntarily and sometimes mandated from another order of government. There must be a reason for this.

I see the use of documented ‘do and don’t’ lists, along with a process for managing complaints and a list of possible sanctions, as a really good way of keeping barn doors closed before the horses even consider bolting out.


All new councils go through the stages of group dynamics – forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning – as they learn to build their unique team. Creating and adopting a code of ethics or code of conduct during that forming and storming time, before the possibility of ethical breaches occurs, means that the rules are in place for the time when they might be needed.


It’s much easier for someone to point to a pre-established list of what is considered ethical conduct if it has been agreed to in advance. When the alleged breach occurs, the comparison is to the written code, not to an arbitrary consideration of what might be considered an ethical lapse. Much like other policy choices, the idea of having something in writing removes much of the emotion and arbitrary nature from the discussion. Did the person in question violate the written rules or not? If there are pre-existing written rules, the answer to that question often becomes much more straightforward.


For an extensive treatment of this topic, have a read of Leonard Apedaile’s Nurturing Ethics in Governance; Taming Our Rascals Within.


Looking beyond just having the rules in place towards how those rules are applied is a completely different topic for a different blog post.


Does your municipality have a written code of conduct or code of ethics? How often does it get used? Have you ever compared your document to others to see where both could be improved?


I’ve had a chance to review and apply many different codes of conduct over the years. There are some really good examples out there, and there are others that really aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Please let me know what you think. You can find me at ian@strategicsteps.ca.

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I suppose this post is intended as much for the general public as it is for those involved in local government, though it certainly shows the value of what local government provides. I was challenged

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