ETHICS MATTER! Being Politically Neutral in a Partisan World

How best to give voice to your values

By Martha Perego, ICMA-CM | Apr 1, 2021 | ARTICLE

In early 2020, when the Pew Research Institute reported findings from their annual survey of U.S. residents on the topic of public policy issues, the media reported on the top seven issues that divide our society: climate change, environmental protection, guns, military, immigration, education, and health care costs.

Fast forward to 2021. Following a year of dramatic upheaval, the latest survey results add race and equity to the list of public issues where there is significant disagreement.

This disagreement on both priority and policy falls along many lines, but none more so than that of political party. Simply stated, issues and causes are increasingly associated with one political party or another.

We live in a world where there is no shortage of divisive and intractable issues facing society. We are divided by polarized politics that hamper our ability to find common ground on the way forward. Even membership in issue-oriented organizations can generate tensions, raise eyebrows, and lead to difficult conversations. This polarization has created an uncivil atmosphere where it seems that we can no longer have open and frank conversations. We just head to our respective corners.

Most of these contentious issues that divide our society have a direct nexus to local governments and to the quality of life for residents. Managers charged with the responsibility to lead local governments and work with elected officials to develop sound public policy at the local level face many, if not all, of these contentious public issues.

For a profession that built its reputation on a foundation of political neutrality, this seems like an ethical quagmire. Our commitment to political neutrality was stated simply in the first ICMA Code of Ethics: “No city manager should take an active part in politics.” In a nod to how complex it is to remain nonpartisan, the tenet evolved to encourage managers and all members working in local government to “refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators.”

If the issues, and the approach to addressing them, are associated with one political party or another, how can a professional in the course of their work advance these issues and remain true to the profession’s commitment to political neutrality?

If the manager engages their staff to develop policy recommendations to the governing body on one of these politicized issues, aren’t they subject to allegations by the public or elected officials that they are engaging in politics? Is the proper role of the manager and staff then to be silent and wait for the governing body to initiate all discussion about policy?

Can a professional even voice their opinion or advocate for an issue, even from a personal perspective, without violating the ICMA Code of Ethics? Can they give voice to the values they hold?

Defining Political Activity

Tenet 7, in describing the “political activities” that undermine public confidence in administrators, draws a clear distinction in the seven guidelines between what can be characterized as big “P” and small “p” political activity. Big “P” activity, which is prohibited, includes any conduct related to a candidate’s campaign for any publicly elected office. Members working for a local government cannot endorse candidates, sign petitions, make financial contributions to candidate campaigns, or contribute to organizations that fund candidates.

Engaging in public issues, which can be regarded as small “p” political activity, is not prohibited. The guidelines acknowledge the role that members play in the presentation of issues related to the local government and allow members to advocate for public issues of personal interest.

Policy Development in Your Organization

Managers and their staff do have a legitimate, ethical, and necessary role to play in the development of sound public policy. This role is acknowledged in Tenet 5 of the ICMA Code of Ethics: “Submit policy proposals to elected officials; provide them with facts and advice on matters of policy as a basis for making decisions and setting community goals; and uphold and implement local government policies adopted by elected officials.”

While an issue may seem to be political, engaging in the development of policy to address the issue is not. Members are not engaging in political activity when they work to propose policy to the governing body or react to policy proposals initiated by the governing body.

This position is reaffirmed in a guideline under Tenet 7 that acknowledges that “members may assist their governing body in the presentation of issues involved in referenda such as bond issues, annexations, and other matters that affect the government entity’s operations and/or fiscal capacity.”

To be successful in achieving the desired outcome, consideration needs to be given to where the elected officials stand on an issue, as well as where the community stands. Getting out front of the governing body on any policy matter is entering into risky and likely unsuccessful territory. They are, after all, the ultimate decision maker here. The best course of action is to work together to achieve alignment and agreement on a policy approach that is best for the community. As a seasoned manager once noted, sometimes you need to wait until your elected officials get there. And sometimes acknowledge that the governing body and/or the community’s position on an issue may never align with yours.

If you manage or work for a local government where there is alignment with your community, elected officials, and staff on how to advance improvements on any of these fronts, consider your good fortune, as temporary as it may be. Given the volatility of these issues, a single event can disrupt the path forward and any consensus that once existed may vanish. The divide at the national level unfortunately is reflected in the community served by professional managers.

Personal Advocacy

The Code of Ethics also acknowledges that members may voice their opinion on issues of the day. In 2013, after a long and robust discussion with members on the value of political neutrality to the profession, the ICMA Executive Board approved adding a guideline to make it clear that the Code does not require members to remain silent on issues that are outside the scope of their employment.

Personal Advocacy of Issues. Members share with their fellow citizens the right and responsibility to voice their opinion on public issues. Members may advocate for issues of personal interest only when doing so does not conflict with the performance of their official duties.

The guideline allows a member to:

• Publicly express his or her opinion on a public issue.

• Join an issue-oriented organization.

• Actively fundraise on behalf of an issue-oriented organization.

• Donate to a political action committee that is promoting an issue (but not a candidate).

Take the approach to focus on the merits of your position and refrain from calling out an elected official or party. That buffers the appearance that your engagement is political.

Consider your Role

As you contemplate your next steps, consider what impact voicing your opinion on an issue may have on your role as a convenor or facilitator on community issues, a neutral mediator to resolve disputes, and a source of objective and credible recommendations. How can you be part of our democracy while modeling the civility and nonpartisanship that is at the core of our profession? How do you give voice to your values to debate and effectuate change, yet respect your commitment to the values of the profession and your community?