Thursday, January 31, 2008

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: ETHICS -- THINGS ARE BAD ALL OVER

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 31, 2008


Although neither the governor nor lawmakers seem to be fired up about ethics legislation this session, according to a national study released this week, there are deep misgivings about ethics in state governments all over the country — by state employees themselves.

The Washington, D.C.-based Ethics Resource Center, “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to the study and promotion of ethical behavior in organizations worldwide,” released its annual National Government Ethics Survey. The results weren’t pretty.

Fifty-seven percent of state workers surveyed reported observing at least one kind of misconduct over the past year. More than 80 percent of those reported seeing multiple instances of misconduct.

Only 7 percent of state workers reported a “strong ethical culture” in their workplaces.
And yes, gentle readers, it’s not just New Mexico.

“There is a strong risk of losing the public trust that is essential for any government to maintain,” ERC President Patricia Harned said in a news release accompanying the report. “Voters must believe that elected officials, political appointees and career government employees act in their best interest. Eroded trust hinders government’s effectiveness.”

The study doesn’t have a state-by-state breakdown, so it’s impossible to see if New Mexico ranks higher or lower than the national average.

The most common form of misconduct reported was conflicts of interest. Nearly one-third of state employees said they’d observed this, though none of the conflicts were specified. This was followed by lying to employees (28 percent) and abusive behavior (26 percent).

“A quarter of state government employees work in environments conducive to misconduct,” the report says. “In environments conducive to misconduct, employees are introduced to situations directly inviting misconduct, and/or they feel pressured to cut corners to do their jobs. Further, employees may feel that work values conflict with personal values.”

“Top management may be unaware of the misconduct problem,” the report said. Twenty-nine percent of state employees who observed misconduct did not report it.

“Because government sets many rules to assure ethical practices in business, it is vital that government set a high standard of its own,” Harned said. “A world where almost one-third of local government workers don’t report ethics violations when they see them does not set a high standard.”

Most disturbing is the finding that 18 percent of state government employees who reported their observations of misconduct have experienced retaliation. More than a third who observed misconduct chose not to report it fearing retaliation from management, while 30 percent didn’t report misconduct because they feared retaliation from co-workers.

State government has a bigger “ethics risk” factor than federal or local governments, the study says. This is because of the high rate of observing misconduct coupled with the low rate of reporting it.

For the study, 3,452 randomly selected state employees were interviewed between June 25 and Aug. 15 last year. Again, we don’t know how many, if any, were from New Mexico.

Memorialize this: In past legislative sessions, I’ve jokingly called for a study on Legislature-mandated studies. Other Roundhouse wags have suggested a task force on task forces.

In that spirit, an Albuquerque Republican lawmaker said Wednesday that later this week she’s introducing a resolution on memorials and resolutions.

Rep. Justine Fox-Young is proposing the House change its rules that would restrict memorials to “an official expression of condolence or acknowledgment of achievement for public officials past or present or those who ‘made extraordinary contributions’ to the state.”

Her resolution would restrict resolutions to proposed state constitutional amendments, ratifying amendments to the U.S. Constitution, petitioning Congress under Congressional rules, “expressing the approval of the Legislature where legislative approval is required by statute or (the state constitution)” or adopting new or repealing or amending rules of the House.

As used now, there are memorials and resolutions for every which thing. There are memorials or joint memorials declaring it Cowboy Day, Farm Workers Day, Stealth Fighter Day, FFA & 4H Day, New Mexico Mesa Day, School Nutrition Day and UNM vs. NMSU Football Rivalry Week. There are memorials calling for new studies and task forces.

Perhaps coincidentally, Fox-Young showed her resolution to reporters on the same day that Gov. Bill Richardson told reporters at a news conference, “I’m sick of studies! I’m sick of task forces!” (He was discussing his health care legislation.)

“I really hate memorials,” Fox-Young said. “I never introduce them.”

Someone is bound to suggest a task force to study her resolution.

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