Graphic image of people reading the ICMA Code of Ethics

This profession is founded on the ethical principles of equity, fairness, integrity, political neutrality, and justice. The very first ICMA Code of Ethics, which laid the foundation for the profession, reinforced that “the city manager is the administrator for all the people, and in performing his duty he should serve without discrimination.” Advancing that obligation, the Code was amended in 1938 to note that the manager serves “all the people and handles each administrative problem without discrimination on the basis of principle and justice.” That ethical commitment to acting based on principle and justice remains part of the Code to this very day.

While notably silent about the rights of women, the Code was also amended in 1938 to address racial discrimination in employment practices: “The city manager handles all matters of personnel on the basis of merit. Political, religious, and racial considerations carry no weight in appointments, salary increases, promotions, and discipline in the municipal service.”

As the profession evolved, the principles were better defined and expanded. All members had an ethical obligation to “affirm the dignity and worth of the services rendered by government and maintain a constructive, creative, and practical attitude toward local government affairs and a deep sense of social responsibility as a trusted public servant.” And to “recognize that the chief function of local government at all times is to serve the best interests of all the people.”

Espousing a principle though does not ensure that it will be practiced. The profession has logged enormous progress since its inception in 1914 in the areas of equitable and effective service delivery, fair and transparent practices, and eliminating those corrupt practices that interfere with good governance. Yet it’s not hard to identify segments of our populations, neighborhoods, or entire communities that have not benefited from the principles we espouse. They have yet to see the tangible results of our aspirational goals. Perhaps this is due largely to the practices that prevail. Practices must be scrutinized and changed if they don’t deliver on the values we aspire to.

We are not unique as a profession struggling to promote practices that align with and reinforce our principles. On an average day, it’s not without its challenges. Indeed, for every profession, there will be that moment in time when a stunning event happens that sets us on our heels. A moment of such enormity that calls us to seriously re-evaluate our ethical principles, commitment, and the soundness of our practices. One such period for the local government profession was the late 1960s as the United States struggled with issues of race and racial equity. Reflecting on the issues and the steps that ICMA took, ICMA President Graham Watts noted:

For too many years, we as public administrators were unmindful of the needs of minority citizens. In our professional activities, we were unwilling to share position and power with those who had been relegated to lowly positions and had been kept far from the seats of power. Yes, ours is an imperfect society, and our institutions reflect our imperfections, but as administrators with significant—and growing—public leadership responsibilities, reform and pursuit of progress are those responsibilities. We cannot pretend that problems of injustice and inequality do not exist.

Over the next decades, managers leading cities and counties did not ignore the issues. They stepped into leadership roles working with their staff to advance equity in their communities. Fast forward to 2020, as ICMA President Jane Brautigam and the Executive Board felt compelled to speak out and act following another stunning event—the murder of George Floyd. One of their six defined action steps included the directive to revisit our Code of Ethics to better integrate our ethical commitment to racial justice and equity into the very fiber of the 12 tenets.

Revisiting the Code

The ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) is taking the lead on the comprehensive review of the Code through the lens of racial justice and equity. This is in keeping with their oversight role in enforcing the Code and ensuring that it remains relevant to the profession. Indeed, it has been the CPC leading the comprehensive review of the Code launched back in 2013, which was paused at the beginning of the pandemic.

Consistent with past efforts to review the Code, member engagement and input is critical to informing any potential changes to the principles of the Code. As a reminder to all, changes to the tenets, which are the principles of the profession, require approval of the membership. The guidelines, which provide practical advice on implementing the principles, are approved by the ICMA Executive Board.

A first step in the review process was to engage a cross section of members in two focus group to identify the most relevant principles or tenets which should be subjected to further discussion and review. It’s arguable that the principles of equity and justice are so intertwined in the work that all 12 tenets should be assessed. But the consensus of the initial effort was to focus on those primary, not ancillary, to the work. Those Tenets are 1, 4, 9, and 11. Here are the tenets with some context and questions to provide thoughts about strengthening the principles.

Tenet 1: We believe professional management is essential to efficient and democratic local government by elected officials.

Amended by the membership in 2019 to be more concise, the language of the tenet was also changed to replace “effective” with “efficient.” Given that the four pillars of public administration are economy, efficiency, effectiveness, and social equity, perhaps all four should be reflected in the tenet.

Tenet 4: Serve the best interests of the people.

This principle was added to the Code in 1952 as: “The city manager keeps the community informed on municipal affairs. He emphasizes friendly and courteous service to the public. He recognizes that the chief function of the local government at all times is to serve the best interests of all the people on a non-partisan basis.” It was revised in 1972 to read: “Recognize that the chief function of local government at all times is to serve the best interests of all of the people.” When evaluated by the membership in 2018, there was agreement to simplify the tenet language to “Serve the best interests of the people.” Two guidelines on inclusion and diversity were added by the Board.


Impacts of Decisions. Members should inform their governing body of the anticipated effects of a decision on people in their jurisdictions, especially if specific groups may be disproportionately harmed or helped.

Inclusion. To ensure that all the people within their jurisdiction have the ability to actively engage with their local government, members should strive to eliminate barriers to public involvement in decisions, programs, and services.

How do we assess whether decisions are in the public’s best interests? Should this assessment be anchored by a commitment to equity? Is “the community” a more appropriate term than “the people”?

Tenet 9: Keep the community informed on local government affairs; encourage communication between the citizens and all local government officers; emphasize friendly and courteous service to the public; and seek to improve the quality and image of public service.

Added as a new statement in 1972, the tenet includes both principles and outcomes. Do we need to better define the desired outcome of keeping the community informed? Is it to enhance our image or to ensure that the public is fully engaged? Is “the people” a more appropriate term than “the community”? Is it “citizens” or “residents”?

Tenet 11: Handle all matters of personnel on the basis of merit so that fairness and impartiality govern a member’s decisions, pertaining to appointments, pay adjustments, promotions, and discipline.



Equal Opportunity. All decisions pertaining to appointments, pay adjustments, promotions, and discipline should prohibit discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, political affiliation, disability, age, or marital status.

It should be the members’ personal and professional responsibility to actively recruit and hire a diverse staff throughout their organizations.

Building on the principle introduced in the Code in 1938, the tenet has not deviated from the original intent. The guideline, which represents two distinct responsibilities, was added in 1972, when guidelines were first introduced to the Code. The emphasis on fairness and impartiality in making personnel decisions is important. Is there an obligation as well to consider diversity, equity, and inclusion? Would the principle be strengthened with this addition?

What’s Next?

Members will have the opportunity to provide their input via virtual focus groups and at the upcoming ICMA Regional Conferences. Some state associations have invited ICMA to conduct sessions at their conferences also. The member input will inform a survey to the membership in Spring 2022, designed to assess potential changes to the tenets and guidelines.

Martha Perego


MARTHA PEREGO, ICMA-CM, is director of member services and ethics director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (

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