Image of Sept 2014 PM cover

In this article from September 2014, ICMA past president Troy Brown wrote that “we must ensure that the Code of Ethics remains front and center in our thinking and relevant to the changing times upon us.” In the decade since, the Code has undergone necessary changes to ensure that the language reflects the values of the profession.

Ethics, Front and Center

When I was in high school in rural Pennsylvania, I vividly remember sitting in history class during the long humid spring and early summer days learning about William M. “Boss” Tweed and his infamous corrupt political reign in New York City during the nineteenth century.

At the time, I had a special interest in learning about Tweed’s corruption because I was serving as class president. In particular, I found myself fascinated with the reform that followed his downfall.

Coming from a working-class family and background, I related to the socioeconomic circumstances — prevalent in the country during that time — that Tweed exploited for his personal benefit. It is well documented that immigrants were flooding New York City in waves, chasing the American Dream and seeking opportunities for a better life.

Most had given up everything they had to travel to America for a chance to make something of their lives, and the hopes of our government structure played a huge role in providing those opportunities.

Those aspirations resonated among Americans and to this day, the dreams remain. We rely on our local governments to meet our most basic needs for roads, water, power, sanitation, and public safety. We ask many things, but most of all we don’t want local government to get in our way or be a hindrance to our quest for the American Dream.

A Paradigm Shift

Isaac Newton’s law of motion tells us that every action has an equal and opposition reaction that follows. Considering the tension between citizens and government that existed during the 19th century, which was caused by the widespread corruption of organizations much like Tammany Hall, the reform that swept the nation following Boss Tweed’s reign changed the role of government service delivery.

It also had a profound impact on ethical expectations of future government administrators.

“In response to this public discontent, progressive reformers fought for and won a series of government reforms that spawned several organization experiments.” 1 The reform that followed set in motion key governance changes and spawned the council-manager form of government.

Under this system, local government managers partner with local elected officials to assist with the development and implementation of public policy. This is done in a collaborative capacity, whereby the professional manager brings such philosophies as civic engagement, transparency, political neutrality, and ethical behavior into the political process.

This paradigm shift is significant because when it’s properly administered, it actually elevates the role of elected officials by allowing them to focus on broad policy objectives and setting vision, rather than getting mired in the minutia of day-to-day operations. The significance of this change is most realized when results are achieved and local services are delivered in a fair, equitable manner across all socioeconomic and demographic regions of a community. This is the foundation of why ICMA was incorporated.

In 1924, ICMA amended its constitution integrating the ICMA Code of Ethics into the organization and codifying ethical behavior among its members. This integration impacted the behaviors that managers would display, and also played a key role in advancing governance throughout the world.

Although the Code of Ethics is designed to provide guidelines for managers, at its core it strives to provide citizens the opportunities to self-actualize on a level playing field. When adhered to in a consistent manner, residents, contractors and vendors don’t have to be concerned about fairness in political processes, stewardship of public funds among local officials, or corruption within the local government structure.

This is why the Code of Ethics is so critically important — to assist with the promulgation of the democratic process throughout our profession.

An Evolving Code

The world has evolved dramatically since the adoption of the Code in 1924 and continues to evolve today. To keep pace with the transformation nurtured by ICMA and local managers, the Code has been critiqued and reviewed a number of times, and subsequently amended.

The ICMA Executive Board’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) plays an important role for professional managers and ICMA members. It serves not only as the investigatory branch for allegations of malfeasance against the Code, but also as a link to our history for reminding us why ethical behavior is important.

CPC members help keep ICMA members accountable to the promises made by those in our past, who fought for fairness and equality along the way so that we and our children can have our own opportunities for self-actualization.

We use the Code as our guide to remind ourselves and members of where we have come from, and which course we must stay on, as we are entrusted with our communities’ most valuable asset — quality of life.

Looking forward, we have to remain diligent in keeping up with the Code. We are in the midst of one of our most transformative periods in recent time. The speed and efficiency of technological advances pushes professional managers to be both educators and learners; challenges us to be reformers and to be reformed; and demands that we do this in real time on a daily basis.

To that end, we must ensure that the Code of Ethics remains front and center in our thinking and relevant to the changing times upon us. That is why each year the CPC takes on the task of reviewing one tenet of the Code of Ethics. During my second year of CPC service, committee members evaluated Tenet 7, which speaks to political neutrality. Then, our efforts were focused on a review of Tenet 12, which provides guidance for endorsements. The amendments to the tenets and guidelines are important in keeping pace with the changing environment we all face. Equally important to keeping the Code relevant, however, is the conversation around the Code itself and the dialogue and opinions that we all have a right to share.

This conversation provides a forum so we as managers can debate the guidelines, words, and phrases but also preserve the basic principles behind the Code when it was originated 100 years ago: fairness and equality in public service.

None of us are perfect, and we all have moments that challenge our thinking and perceptions of ourselves and others.

Personally, I have benefitted tremendously by having had the honor to serve on this ICMA committee. I have learned more about myself and the Code of Ethics than I ever could have predicted. For each, single, teachable moment for members that I have encountered during my tenure, I have had two learnable moments for me professionally. The biggest takeaway for me is that it doesn’t matter if you’re an ICMA member or not, the manner in which local government professionals conduct themselves affects all managers.

Each day I strive to do my part to ensure that residents in the community where I work have the opportunity to chase their dreams and create positive memories about their life so they can share those memories with someone else. It’s become part of what defines me as an ICMA member and a professional manager. It has become an intrinsic part of me.

The Public’s Perception

The challenges for managers don’t end with their management responsibilities. Whether we like it or not, working in the public sector casts an eye of scrutiny over all of us, regardless of our position or role in an organization.

Not so long ago, as an example, I was perusing my Facebook newsfeed and catching up on the latest births, announcements, pet updates, and food postings of my friends. I saw an article that was posted from someone on the East Coast, which is nearly 3,000 miles away from me, mind you, about a city employee who was being accused of misappropriation of public funds.

My friend commented, “Don’t trust government employees, they are all corrupt!” I couldn’t leave that hanging out there, so I commented to him that not all government employees are corrupt, and, in fact, a number of communities with millions of Americans are run extremely well. Fortunately, my friend clarified his comments and stated that he wasn’t talking about professional managers like me and admitted that he made the posting out of frustration.

This is just one example of the perception some people have of public servants. It didn’t even matter that the employee in question was a supervisor in a transit division; his actions had an impact on the general perception of all public employees.

It is not enough to simply be ethical in your personal dealings. We have to promote and emulate ethical behavior in our workplace, support our peers in their ethical behaviors, and dispel misconceptions as we carry out our workplace duties. In short, we have to take care of one another.

Ethics is one of the key pillars for professional management and a tenet for ICMA. This responsibility has been handed down to us by the nineteenth century reformers who were the catalysts for monumental changes in government. Their dedication in eliminating conditions that fed corruption like a starving animal was the foundation for which future structures would rise and give way to opportunism for all Americans. They left us with a heavy burden in carrying out our duties.

Regardless of the position that one holds in a public agency, a high level of responsibility comes with the role. Public officials are not all cut from the same cloth; we are unique individuals with our own imperfections and varied opinions.

But the one thing we have in common is the responsibility to do our best to be stewards of the public funds and create opportunities for prosperity among all residents. If we don’t, then the road that was paved with the actions of the reformers of the past will be the road that we head down into the future as we, ourselves, are reformed.


1 “The Legacy of Local Government Professionalism: A 100-Year Perspective,” Robert J. O’Neill Jr., 2014, The Municipal Year Book, pp. x-xv.

Visit the Code of Ethics centennial page as ICMA celebrates the legacy of ethical leadership and the enduring principles ICMA members uphold in their personal and professional conduct.

Practices for Effective Local Government Management and Leadership

New, Reduced Membership Dues

A new, reduced dues rate is available for CAOs/ACAOs, along with additional discounts for those in smaller communities, has been implemented. Learn more and be sure to join or renew today!