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Questioning Ethics

Posted on August 14, 2020


Question marks

Ethics is not a conversation of what we actually do, but of what we should do. It’s important to make this distinction as this post will focus on the compass, the lighthouse of our profession but that alone will not mean we’ll walk in the right direction or won’t run ashore. Still, it is far better to navigate our work with as strong of tools as we can, ethics being one of them.

My first project for my social justice coursework can be found here, analyzing the ICMA Code of Ethics and Guidelines through four social justice theories. In sum, our Code of Ethics holds up well, there was nothing egregious or inherently prejudiced that I found. A number of questions did arise though:

  • Can we better or more narrowly define “facts” (Tenet 5) and “merits” (Tenet 11) to promote applying them in ways that are equitable as opposed to reinforcing traditional prejudices?
  • Can we explicitly include “intersectionality”, recognizing those people who fall along the intersections of two or more disadvantaged groups?
  • How can we reconcile our profession’s ethics-based primarily around processes with social justice that is concerned with results? Can we gain something by incorporating some results-based ethics?
  • Politics is a difficult issue, or more truly, several difficult issues as there is so much grey area in what is political and not, when to refrain and when to engage. How can we approach these matters?

These are intentionally written as questions instead of certainties as I don’t feel a single graduate paper alone should be used to redefine a Code of Ethics for over 13,000 professionals who have a great deal of responsibility, influence, and power. What I hope for from this paper is to encourage the questioning of ethics, for us to understand that ethics are not rigid doctrines set in stone, but are dynamic and fluid wisdoms that we can and should engage with, shape and direct along with the changing times.

And we have an invitation to do so.

ICMA is wrapping up years of reviewing the Code a couple of tenets at a time and was already planning to start over again when 2020 reinforced the urgency of it. Take the opportunity to be a part of it. Add your perspective. Use theories I didn’t. Use a more nuanced and thorough process than I did. Include your elected officials, your staff, your residents. The more of us who engage with and find ways to better ensure our ethics offer us an effective compass, the better we can make a positive difference.

Although I’ve less experience with them, there are other code of ethics too within our industry. AICP (Planners), IIMC (Clerks), GFOA (Finance), and more have their respective codes who in turn we can encourage their membership to think critically on.

Once we offer our perspectives it will be up to each of us to let our Code of Ethics question us too, for our own actions to be under its light. We shouldn’t feel suffocated, but we should be challenged. We shouldn’t feel unable to act but should feel the need to be mindful and critical of our actions. It is a mutual, cyclical relationship where our efforts make our ethics better which in turn betters our work.

To start the cycle, we have to question.


This guest blog is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, the Assistant to the Town Manager in Hudson, Colorado.

Read all of Matt’s other blogs at the Social Justice –> Government homepage.

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