Honor: Putting Public Before Personal Interest
The Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust has endorsed a resolution that recommends the adoption of an Honor Code by Miami-Dade County government. If adopted by County Commission and implemented by the Mayor, county employees would not only be expected to conduct themselves in an ethical fashion; they would be obliged to report serious government misconduct to appropriate authorities when they know about it.
Honor codes are familiar to many of those from whom the highest degree of personal integrity is required. Military personnel as well as students attending some of our most elite educational institutions agree to act with honesty in all matters and not to tolerate less from others.
To witness serious misconduct but fail to act is a violation of the honor code, and could lead to discipline.
It is time to bring a similar code of conduct into all levels of our public service in Miami-Dade County. No one whose primary duty is to serve and protect the public may be said to perform that duty adequately by remaining a bystander after becoming aware of corrupt practices by a colleague or supervisor.
The most vital aspect of public service is the commitment to protect the public from harm. To fulfill that commitment, public employees may not be mere spectators to government corruption.
We rightly venerate our armed forces, police, firefighters, and other public safety personnel for their willingness to confront the most dangerous physical threats to our safety. Should we consider corruption within government to be less of a threat? Isn’t the safety of our roads, buildings, drinking water, schools, and park facilities undermined by corrupt or unethical practices that weaken oversight of government projects and facilities?
I refer here to substantial corruption or grossly unethical practices, not about failures to comply with minor or technical requirements. The intent is a policy that strikes at significant government corruption from within, not an attempt to police dirty fingernails. Running a private business on the public’s time or taking a bribe would qualify. Discourteous behavior would not.
There is reason to ask whether three things-- natural human loyalty to co-workers, concern over job security, and the stigma of being considered a “snitch”—would prevent such a policy from succeeding.
The first two of these issues are easily addressed.
In the public sector, loyalty to the public must always trump personal loyalties. Anyone who cannot abide by that tenet does not belong in public service.
Careerism is a common obstacle to the willingness of individuals in both private and public sectors to report unethical practices they might witness. But protecting corrupt supervisors or co-workers makes one an accomplice to wrongdoing—not an acceptable role for public servants. Skittish would-be whistleblowers have alternate ways to expose corruption, including anonymous letters and hotlines.
The “snitch” problem is more difficult. Consider the former mayor of Sweetwater, who recently pleaded guilty to corruption crimes. Showing a false sense of righteousness, he declared that he would not act as a “snitch” against other wrongdoers.
Examples are legion of corrupt dictators and flawed ideologies swathed in the guise of such false righteousness. Understandably, many in South Florida who have suffered under corrupt regimes that relied on their own snitches to persecute and repress innocent people may hesitate to sign up for that role.
We in South Florida may be burdened with more than our share of corruption, but thankfully, we do not live under an oppressive dictatorial regime. We have enough control over our public institutions to impose reasonable requirements on those who lead and serve us.
What we need from public servants is that sense of righteousness turned inward on their own conduct and responsibility. What is needed is righteousness born of humility and fired by a commitment to service, instead of blind loyalty to a malevolent leader or a defective ideal.
Public oversight of government is important through civic involvement and elections, but we cannot realistically expect the public to monitor all of the county’s 26,000 employees. Public servants can lighten the load by shouldering a greater share of the oversight that any democratic government needs to succeed. It is vital that public servants supply the conscience that responds to public concern about the integrity of government. A realistic honor code requiring them to report corrupt activity would be an important step in making that happen.
Cynics may expect that many public employees, faced with an honor code, will lack the moral courage needed to report wrongdoing. But I am confident that they can rise to the challenge of creating a more ethical organizational culture within government.
Joseph M. Centorino
Joseph M. Centorino