How to Avoid Unethical Behavior in Government

April 29, 2019

By Chris Morrill

Executive Director/CEO of the Government Finance Officers Association 


In 2017 we surveyed Government Finance Officer Association (GFOA) members who took jobs with a new organization in the last year, asking them their reasons for doing so.  While the reason most commonly cited for entering the job market in the first place was organizational, we were particularly struck by a few of their responses, notably that “unethical behavior,” was a common factor.

These results led us to review GFOAs decades-old code of ethics – fine for its time but not relevant to many of the ethical challenges our members face in the 21st century.

For the past year we have worked with a diverse task force of members to modernize our approach to ethics. Advances in psychological research, primarily the work of Mary Gentile in Giving Voice to Values and, a collaboration of top ethics researchers, have revealed compelling insights into how we can encourage ethical behavior.  We approached developing a new code of ethics as an opportunity to provide government finance officers with tools to be leaders in building an ethical culture.

Traditional codes of ethics focus on do’s and don’ts. For example, GFOAs old code included these statements.

  • They shall exercise prudence and integrity in the management of funds.
  • They shall not, directly or indirectly, seek or accept personal gain which would influence… the conduct of their official duties.

While there is some value to specifying the boundaries of acceptable behavior, the limitation of this approach is that most people already have a good sense of what is right and what is wrong. The real impediment to ethical behavior is not lack of knowledge about the right thing to do – it is pressure from the environment to do the wrong thing -- or at least ignore other people doing it.

With this in mind, GFOA sought to develop a different kind of code.  We interviewed our members to understand the ethical challenges they faced in their organizations and communities.  This information, informed by ethics research, led us to trustworthiness as the foundation of an ethical culture in local government.

The new code is built on this foundation and based on the underlying values that help government finance professionals do the right thing, even when doing the right thing is difficult. These values include integrity and honesty.

Following is some language we are currently testing with our members to define this concept, as it pertains to government finance: “I will: exercise prudence in the management of public funds; uphold the letter and the spirit of the law; avoid conflicts of interest; and not seek personal gain in conduct of the public’s business. I will develop the policies, procedures, and systems necessary to ensure honest financial management in my government.”

The other significant elements which will be defined and discussed in the new code include treating people fairly, emphasizing diversity and inclusion and demonstrating reliability and consistency.  The GFOA executive board will adopt the final code of ethics in mid-May.

By living these values as an individual – and leading their organizations based on them, government finance officers can build cultures of trustworthiness.  And, when faced with tough ethical challenges, they are more likely to make the right decision based on their values. Moreover, it is our hope that by adopting this code, GFOA members will not feel compelled to leave their positions because of a bad organizational culture or poor leadership.