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ICMA Code Drives Ethical Local Government Cultures

For nearly 100 years, ICMA has rigorously enforced a set of principles that guide the personal and professional behavior of appointed local government managers.

During National Ethics Awareness Month in March, ICMA urges local government leaders to develop a strategy for building an integrity-based culture within their organizations that promotes ethical behavior.

During National Ethics Awareness Month in March, ICMA urges local government leaders to develop a strategy for building an integrity-based culture within their organizations that promotes ethical behavior.

As a condition of membership, ICMA members must agree to abide by the ICMA Code of Ethics—adopted in 1924 as a set of standards governing the personal and professional behavior of generations of local government managers—and to submit to a peer-to-peer review of any allegation of unethical conduct involving them. To reenergize members around this enduring commitment and the ICMA Code of Ethics, during Ethics Awareness Month, the organization promotes its “What’s on Your Wall” campaign, which encourages members to request a suitable-for-framing copy of the Code that they can display prominently on their office wall.

Since the development of the 12 tenets of the Code, ICMA has built an extensive collection of ethics issues and advice, case studies, and model local government documents. This knowledge has been translated into training workshops and courses (including an “Ethics 101” online ethics course for local government staff), consulting services, ethics textbooks, and other resources designed to further the organization’s mission throughout the world.

“There are a number of things a government organization can do to foster ethical behavior,” says Martha Perego, ICMA director of Ethics and Membership, who has counseled hundreds of individuals on ethical issues and authors a monthly column, “Ethics Matter!,” in ICMA’s PM (Public Management) magazine.

“First, each organization must define its values and create a code of ethics that reflects those values. Second, it’s important to build awareness of ethical issues through training, to strengthen employee problem-solving skills, and to promote an environment in which employees feel safe to raise questions about what they should and shouldn’t do. Finally, the organization must establish a mechanism employees can use to blow the whistle on unethical behavior, if necessary.”

ICMA continues to promote its now-92-year-old Code of Ethics through extensive education, training, and advice and a rigorously enforced peer-review process that investigates complaints. On average, the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct reviews roughly 20 to 30 ethics complaints against members each year, which can result in a public censure, membership bar, revocation of a member’s ICMA Credentialed Manager designation, or a private censure. Ethics cases can also be closed following a determination of insufficient facts or that no violation of the Code has taken place.

Constantly evolving, the Code has been amended eight times since its adoption in 1924. To ensure its continued relevance, in early 2013, on the eve of the organization’s 100th and the Code’s 90th anniversaries, ICMA’s executive board committed to a comprehensive examination of one or two of the Code’s 12 tenets each year.

Following a nine-month examination and the engagement of nearly 2,200 of its members, in September 2013, the ICMA Executive Board voted to retain the existing language of Tenet 7 of the Code of Ethics, which discusses the relevancy of political neutrality, a hallmark of the local government management profession. Tenet 7 of the Code generates a significant number of inquiries and ethics violations and applies to all ICMA members working for a local government. The tenet reads:

“Refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators. Refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body.”

Between July 2014 and April 2015, ICMA members reviewed Tenet 12 of the Code, which prohibits leveraging a public position for personal gain. The review culminated in an overwhelming vote by the membership to replace the tenet’s outdated language. Following that decision, the new “Guidelines,” which clarify the language in each tenet and help ICMA members abide by it, were developed. Tenet 12 of the ICMA Code now reads:

Public office is a public trust. A member shall not leverage his or her position for personal gain or benefit.”

This month, ICMA will launch a review of Tenet 3 of the Code of Ethics, which states that local government managers must earn the respect and confidence of elected officials and the public by dedicating themselves to the highest ideals of honor and integrity.

Learn more about public sector ethics, building an ethical culture through ethics education and training, and the continuing development and enforcement of the ICMA Code of Ethics. 


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