Seek No Favor: Avoiding Appearance of Personal Gain

By Perego, Martha | Public Management, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Seek No Favor: Avoiding Appearance of Personal Gain


Perego, Martha, Public Management


Public service is a privilege. And as with life's privileges, it comes with a unique set of responsibilities and obligations. One key obligation for all officials, whether elected or appointed, is to seek no favor.

A public office or position should not be leveraged for personal gain. Conduct that creates even the appearance that personal gain trumps public duty must be avoided.

A Look Back

In a bit of irony, ICMA was focused on encouraging local government professionals to follow that higher principle of public service, seek no favor, the very same year the White House embarked on one of the most egregious abuses of official power. Yes, Watergate.

Tenet 12 of the ICMA Code of Ethics establishes the profession's standard regarding the issue of personal gain. Written in 1972, the tenet is a merger of a statement from the original Code drafted in 1924 that reads: "Believe that personal aggrandizement or profit secured by confidential information or by misuse of public time is dishonest" with "seek no favors," which was added in 1969 (perhaps ICMA was a bit prescient about the conduct to come from the executive branch?).

The current Tenet 12 reads: "Seek no favor; believe that personal aggrandizement or profit secured by confidential information or by misuse of public time is dishonest."

The tenet's guidelines cover a broad range of issues that are both common and significant to professionals working in local government: gifts, conflicts of interest, investments, personal relationships, use of confidential information, outside employment, and endorsements.

Era of More Transparency

Much has changed since the tenet and guidelines were written in 1972. The level of transparency in local government has vastly improved with the passage of strong open records laws. As a consequence of more transparency, the scope of what is truly confidential information is pretty narrow.

Gone are the days of managers being feted at upscale venues by vendors and bond dealers. Most professionals understand that those gifts are just like free cheese in a mousetrap. Both come with significant consequences.

Technology and social media bring a new set of ethical challenges. Consultants and vendors now use websites, Facebook, and other social media venues to market their products and services. That possibility was certainly not envisioned by ICMA when the guideline on endorsements was drafted in 1972.

In addition, there are other hot topics for the profession that are not directly addressed. The Code, for instance, does not include any guidelines on member compensation.

While ICMA adopted a set of principles and best practices on compensation in 2010, they were not incorporated into the Code. An opportunity may exist under the principle "seek no favor" to address issues where the Code is silent.

Moving Forward: The Relevancy of Tenet 12

Given the importance to the profession and the length of time since it was written, Tenet 12 and its guidelines have been selected as part of ICMA's annual Code review process. Members will have the opportunity to engage in the discussion about the relevancy of the tenet and guidelines to the profession.

As the dialogue begins, consider these questions:

* Is the tenet still relevant to the profession? Why or why not?

* Are there parts of the tenet that need refinement or clarity?

* In today's environment, what are the areas of greatest risk where local government professionals could improperly seek favor?

* Tenet 12 and the guidelines do not specifically reference the topic of compensation. …

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