Something I often tell newly elected officials is that they need to have the rules, and they need to use the rules. This is a brief way of saying that good government and good governance are both predicated on predictability, among other values. Decisions made by council, commission, or board members should not surprise anyone. Predictability comes from having a set of rules in place that are well-known and transparent.
Bylaws and policies are in place to ease the decision-making process and provide some sense to the observer about what the board or council will do in a particular situation. A side effect of a robust and current set of rules is that meetings can be shortened because the elected people have telegraphed how they will act in a particular situation. For example, service levels let public servants know when to cut the grass or what to charge for an arena admission.
This predictability extends to codes of conduct (or ethics) for both elected people and staff. Creating and agreeing to the rules before they are needed is important when it comes to impartiality. By the time there is an allegation of contravention of ethics or conduct, it’s too late to be creating the rules – the horse has already left the barn.
When it comes to elected officials, the reference tool is a ‘code of conduct’ or ‘code of ethics’. When it’s for those who manage the place and deliver the front-line services, a ‘respectful workplace policy’ is brought to bear. The first is a governance bylaw or policy, and the second is an administrative policy. This post deals with the rules for elected officials; however, the rules for managers and staff can be quite similar.
Neither of these codes supersede federal or provincial laws about how to treat one another or what rights a person has in a particular situation, so the local legislation must align with those higher-order laws.
In working through too many cases of allegations of contraventions of codes of conduct in various provinces and territories, there are a few aspects that make our lives as investigators easier or tougher, but they all come down to my initial statement about having the rules and following the rules.
There are three or four things that I see in well-functioning codes of conduct and respectful workplace policies:
Create or affirm the rules in advance. By either creating a code of conduct or tweaking and reaffirming the existing code of conduct, the newly elected officials indicate that they own and understand the current document.
This removes any plausible deniability later on. It works even better if there is a requirement in the code that all elected officials and the CAO sign that code of conduct to affirm that they have read it and will abide by it.
Clearly define what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Part of understanding right from wrong is defining what unacceptable behaviour is in a variety of areas. This definition requirement would also include how councils deal with complaints and a list of sanctions available to councils.
This differs across Canada based on provincial legislation. In my experience, some of the best codes of conduct can be found in Alberta.
Orwell is noted for writing in Animal Farm that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This can’t happen if the code of conduct is to be applied fairly. All elected officials must be held to the same standard regardless of their position or their longevity at the council table. Picking favourites is a slippery slope into that vicious cycle that leads to government paralysis.
Finally, I have seen far too many cases of codes of conduct being ‘weaponized’ or used against one or more council members in a frivolous fashion. Tying up a legislative agenda as a way to get back at another elected official is becoming far too common. It illustrates the worst part of governance and shows the public that they are right in their mistrust of politicians. Don’t do this. Period.
There is nuance to all of these aspects of codes of conduct. I’ve had a chance to see what works and what doesn’t work. I speak about this topic at conferences sometimes, and it’s always interesting to hear the nuances that delegates have through the questions they ask.
The bottom line is that these codes of conduct should not be necessary, but they are becoming more and more so. Get the rules in place early and collaborate towards never needing to use them.
Do you have any suggestions about what comprises a really useful code of conduct or respectful workplace policy?
As always, you can reach me at email@example.com