ICMA's Code of Ethics must have seemed strange to those local government officials who first read it in the 1920s. Cities and counties at that time were places where you could finally put your brother-in-law to work if you were elected mayor or make some real money by investing in local real estate because you now had inside information.
The idea that government operations should be run by someone pledged to honest, professional management was naive to some and threatening to others. Today it's the commonly accepted standard in the United States and many countries around the world.
Integrity is the core competency of local government managers, and, although integrity as we define it will never be universal, great progress has been made over the past century. Virtually all professional managers know that engaging in political activity and speculating in real estate within their jurisdictions are clear violations of a standard, which can lead to sanctions.
An example such as Bell, California, stands out as the exception to rules almost everyone understands. Similar progress needs to be made in promoting the growth of performance standards for local governments worldwide.
Several years ago I attended an ICMA International Committee meeting in Dublin, Ireland, where one of our colleagues from the United Kingdom made a presentation on all the problems associated with local government performance audits conducted by his national government. At the end of a lengthy series of complaints, I asked the UK manager whether he believed the audits made his government work better. He paused for a moment before answering that they did.
Despite great new tools to promote transparency, there appear to be few standards for local governments to follow. The Sunshine Review (http://sunshinereview.org) is a nonprofit organization that rates the transparency of government websites, but most governments do not participate. Perhaps the best feature of this site is that it was developed by the customer and not by government.
I can now look at financial information on our city's public website that would have taken me days or weeks to get as a young city manager. Local governments in the developing world are lucky if they have a bulletin board for posting meeting notices, and I have visited jurisdictions where there is no space for members of the public to watch their government at work. I believe the gulf between emerging democracies and those with access to greater technology can be bridged with relatively simple standards and a commitment to observe them.
Transparency is a critical piece of the equation that allows the public to distinguish between opinion and fact. There is so much misinformation and so little understanding of local government that ICMA's role in promoting better access to accurate information is increasingly critical. Partnerships with such professional organizations as Udite (the European Federation of Local Government Executives) and other appropriate nongovernmental organizations will further this goal.
Independent financial audits are accepted practice in most developed nations, but even in the United States these standards are often limited in scope. Although bankruptcies are rare, too many cities and counties experience financial distress for failing to observe the most basic financial accounting and management standards. Honest and effective financial management remains among the highest priorities of our profession, yet great work in this area is often unobserved and unrewarded.
The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) awards for excellence in financial reporting and budget presentation are worthy standards that promote transparency, thoroughness, and accuracy, while ICMA's Financial Trend Monitoring System is an outstanding tool, with principles that can be applied …