Practical Tools to Fight Government Corruption

by Carla Miller

Early in my career as a federal prosecutor I discovered that corruption in government remains a serious problem in the U.S. and, as the Ethics Director for the City of Jacksonville, I’ve come to understand that temptations to use government offices for private ends are subtle and widespread. However, I believe research-based training and related tools can dramatically reduce government corruption and I’ve spent the last two decades searching for effective solutions and workable ideas that can make this a reality.

I have worked with governments across the United States and created a web resource, "CityEthics.org," for cities to use in jump-starting anti-corruption efforts. This search led me to the Lab at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, where I have been a Network Fellow for the past two years. My first blog post at the Lab examined the state of government ethics programs: "The Emperor's New Clothes: a View into the Current State of Municipal Ethics." It was my goal not just to state the problem but also to study cutting edge research from the Lab and translate it into easily used tools for practitioners. These tools need to be freely available and should be able to be built upon by others—crowdsourcing the fight against local government corruption. I invite those who care about to government corruption to review these tools and to contribute to the effort with their ideas and research.

There are a few key points that I have distilled from my work in government ethics.  One is that practitioners are deluged with information and deadlines in their day to day work; they don't have the time to keep up with the voluminous research materials being published (if they can even get access to them) or to search for effective programs that have been tested in the field. There needs to be a "curation" of information so that those in the field can rapidly select what is of most use to them. It's not whether potentially good solutions exist; the key is finding them, summarizing the concepts, and creating applications that can be used in the "real world." Research and tools should be delivered to practitioners on a "silver platter." 

There is also a crucial need to engage citizens, government officials and employees in the purpose of government ethics. Why are they in ethics classes, why does it matter? Why are they learning conflict of interest rules? What is the citizen's role in local government? What is the purpose of the activity and why should they care? In our role as educators, we must address this topic or they will not have hope that anything can change or that they can have any part in effectuating a change.   

It was with these concepts in mind that I developed a curated webpage for citizens, government employees and ethics practitioners that is located in the CityEthics website. 

Here are the topics covered in the webpage:

1. Training Tools. This section contains a entertaining video defining conflicts of interest; a course on "The Purpose of Government Ethics"; and a PowerPoint presentation on the Purpose of Government Ethics, with a transcript. Practitioners can add specific laws and rules to these materials to tailor it to state and local governments.

2. The Expert Series. This section contains summaries of the best academic information relevant to government anti-corruption efforts. There are essays from experts on what they see as the future of ethics training; summarized academic articles and Lab working papers; summarized courses and short concept papers by Lab Fellows:

  • Experts on the future of ethics training
  • Academic articles, cutting edge ideas summarized (for example, Dennis Thompson's speech to the Office of Government Ethics)
  • The Lab—Working Papers of relevance to government ethics (of the 60 plus working papers generated from the E. J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, what concepts can be directly used in a government setting and how?)
  • Course on Institutional Corruption (2014, Harvard); Summary of important materials from the course taught by Lawrence Lessig.
  • Lab Fellows on various topics (For example: Whistleblowers, CDAs, Community Development Associations)  

3. Conferences and Workshops.  The next section summarizes conferences and workshops of interest to the government ethics practitioner—almost as good as being there! For example, the May 2, 2015 workshop on Ethics Training at the Lab's conference on Institutional Corruption was taped and posted on the site.

4. Labcasts and Blog posts. The Edmond J. Safra Lab products relevant to governments are posted in the next section; for example, a Labcast on Local Government Ethics Initiatives.

5. Resources and Tools. The next section contains curated resources and tools; for example, the video series "Ethics Unwrapped" on behavioral ethics:

Ethics Unwrapped. A project from Robert Prentice at the University of Texas at Austin; wonderful training videos based on behavioral ethics. "Using the tools of psychology and related fields, this new area of study explores the organizational pressures and psychological biases that often cause well-intentioned people to act unethically. By sharing stories and real world examples, we encourage ethical decision-making and behavior. All of our videos, and the teaching resources that go with them, provide a platform for fostering meaningful discussion about ethics in the classroom, boardroom and beyond."

Video: Intro to Behavioral Ethics 

6. Citizen Resources. And lastly, there is a section for citizens. What platforms are citizens creating around the country to fight corruption? Many topics are covered here, such as how to write successful referendums, videos, and links to relevant organizations.

So how can you help? You can add to the above web resources or you can make suggestions about what should be available on the site. What items could be of help to those "in the trenches" fighting government corruption? For example, what research ideas could inform practitioners so that they are not spinning their wheels with ineffective training techniques? Are there essential ideas in behavioral ethics that all ethics practitioners in the field should know about? Email me with your ideas and comments; they would be welcomed and appreciated.

Carla Miller, Network Fellow, cmiller@cityethics.org