A decade after ICMA’s founding, members created and approved the ICMA Code of Ethics in 1924. Far more than a historical footnote, this was a remarkable achievement for this very new profession of city management. Along with the new Code, members amended ICMA’s Constitution to enable ICMA to enforce the new standards.
The significance of this contribution to the profession should not be underestimated. A true profession is more than a body of knowledge implemented by experienced practitioners. A true profession is anchored in and guided by a set of commonly held core principles. Those principles not only guide the individual’s conduct but create a set of expectations and a bond with the community they serve. The principles also establish a bond and set expectations among peers and within the professional community.
Taking that first step to create a core set of principles so early in its infancy was fundamental to the expansion and success of the local government management profession. Today, those core principles are taught in MPA programs, reflected in local government management practices, and enforced in a peer review process managed by ICMA. Not only do members hold themselves to this high standard but they feel ethically obligated to hold their colleagues accountable when they see lapses. They do this by filing a complaint with ICMA requesting that an objective, factual, peer review inquiry be conducted.
Critical to our future is the expanded reach of a code once designed only for city managers in North America. A more inclusive membership means that professionals working throughout local governments in any number of roles share the values outlined in the Code and look to it as well for guidance.
The Code has a more global reach now as well. Local government laws, structures and culture influence the circumstances in which practitioners work. The ability to adhere to the values of ICMA is an aspirational goal in some countries. It’s worth far more effort to strengthen the capacity of local government professionals to function in less corrupt environments.
The outcome of a strong ethical standard is building trust with the public, elected officials, and staff. That trust in local government serves to support a thriving democracy.
Keeping the Code Relevant
In the decades that followed the Code’s creation, members were circumspect in making changes. Only six revisions to the Code followed in the next seven decades.
Fast forward to 2013, when the ICMA Executive Board, on the advice of the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC), endorsed a comprehensive review of the Code. Moving methodically tenet by tenet, members were engaged in a very robust review process. Every proposal the CPC presented to the board was based on member input gathered in person during meetings and through a survey to all members. By 2020, eight of the 12 tenets were reviewed with changes overwhelmingly supported by the members. The review process paused that year as members turned their focus to managing during a pandemic.
The murder of George Floyd in June 2020 propelled the ICMA Executive Board to commit to six action steps to address systemic racism. One action step was 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.”
Recommended Changes to Tenets and Guidelines
In December 2022, the ICMA Executive Board approved the recommendation of the CPC to place four changes to the tenets of the Code before the members for consideration. The CPC also provided recommended changes to the guidelines for the board’s consideration after the results of the member vote on the tenets are available.
This is the culmination of a 17-month process where 600 members participated in 17 sessions designed to gather feedback. That feedback was used to develop proposed changes to the tenets and guidelines which were vetted in a survey sent to all members. Over 2,100 members responded to the survey, offering not only their response to the proposed changes but 2,800 suggestions and comments as well.
The survey feedback was constructive and informative. The CPC used that information to develop the final set of proposed changes. The changes affect Tenets 1, 4, 9, and 11 of the Code, along with related guidelines.
In this article, we have listed the proposed changes to the tenets that will be presented for member approval via a ballot on March 1, 2023. While members will not be asked to approve the guidelines, as that is the role of the board, there is contextual value in seeing both the proposed tenets and guidelines. A brief summary of the basis for each recommendation is included.
Cast Your Ballot by March 31
Beginning March 1, members with voting privileges will have the opportunity to vote yes or no on the changes to tenets 1, 4, 9, and 11. In addition to the short summary presented here to explain the recommendations, members are encouraged to read the entire report from ICMA’s consultant partner on the project, the School of Government at the University of North Carolina. That report includes the complete findings of their work along with the survey results, including the member comment section.
Final recommendations on the proposed changes to the guidelines will be refined by the CPC based on the results of the vote on tenets 1, 4, 9, and 11. It is anticipated that final guidelines will be presented to the board for consideration at their June 2023 meeting.
Proposed Changes to the ICMA Code of Ethics
Current Language: We believe professional management is essential to efficient and democratic local government by elected officials.
Survey Language: We believe professional management is essential to EQUITABLE, EFFECTIVE, efficient, AND democratic local government
by elected officials.
Recommended Language: We believe professional management is essential to effective, efficient, equitable, and democratic local government.
Basis for this Recommendation: The first principle of the Code establishes the commitment to professional management and democratic local government. The recommended change returns the principle of effectiveness to the tenet which had been removed in an earlier review. Both the National Academy of Public Administration and the American Society for Public Administration regard equity, effectiveness, and efficiency as the three pillars of public administration.
84% of members who responded to the survey supported the proposed changes to Tenet 1.
There was far less consensus on the proposal to remove “elected officials” from the Tenet. In making final recommendations, the CPC supported the removal as Tenet 1’s primary purpose is to state the broad values of the local government management profession. Tenets 5 and 6 were revised in 2020 and together they provide clarity about the roles and responsibilities of managers working with elected officials in local governance.
Current Language: Serve the best interests of the people.
Survey Language: Serve the best interests of
the people COMMUNITY MEMBERS BY PROMOTING EQUITY.
Recommended Language: Serve the best interests of all community members.
Basis for this Recommendation: Fifty-eight percent of the members responding to the survey supported the proposed changes. In the feedback, members noted that serving the best interests of all is not solely accomplished with a focus on equity. For that reason, the CPC supported removing equity from the final recommendation.
Tenet 4, Guideline 1
Current Language: 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.
Survey Language: EFFECTS
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.
Recommended Language: Effects of Decisions. Members should inform the appropriate elected or appointed official(s) of a decision's anticipated effects on community members.
Basis for this Recommendation: The changes reflect feedback to broaden the consideration of the effects or outcome of decisions on all community members.
Tenet 4, Guideline 2 (New Guideline)
Survey Language: PROMOTE EQUITY. MEMBERS SHOULD ASSESS AND TAKE ACTION TO ASSURE EQUALITY IN ACCESS TO AND QUALITY OF PROGRAMS AND SERVICES AND IN THE ENFORCEMENT OF LAWS AND REGULATIONS FOR ALL. MEMBERS SHOULD ASSESS AND PROPOSE SOLUTIONS TO ELIMINATE DISPARITIES IN OUTCOMES AND CONDITIONS.
Recommended Language: Promote Equity. Members should ensure fairness and impartiality in accessing programs and services and in the enforcement of laws and regulations. Members should assess and propose solutions to strive to eliminate disparities.
Basis for the Recommendation: Serving the interests of the community requires assessing the impact of policies, programs, and services. The new guideline encourages members to be proactive in proposing solutions to eliminate disparities. Seventy-five percent of members who responded to the survey supported the addition of this guideline to Tenet 4.
Current Language: 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.
Keep the community informed on local government affairs; Encourage ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT AND CONSTRUCTIVE communication between the citizens COMMUNITY MEMBERS and all local government officers. Emphasize friendly and courteous service to the public; and seek to improve the quality and image of public service.
Recommended Language: Keep the community informed on local government affairs. Encourage and facilitate active engagement and constructive communication between community members and all local government officials.
Basis for this Recommendation: Tenet 9 had not been reviewed since adopted in 1972. The proposed revisions make the language consistent with current public engagement practices in local government. It also reinforces that constructive engagement is essential in supporting equity. Seventy-nine percent of survey respondents agreed with this approach. The recommended language retains the phrase “keep the community informed on local government affairs” to provide clarity on the ethical obligation of members relative to communications with the community.
Tenet 9, New Guideline
Current Language from Inclusion Guideline from Tenet 4: The recommendation is to move part of a guideline from Tenet 4 to Tenet 9.
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.
Survey Language: ENGAGEMENT
Inclusion. To ensure that all the people MEMBERS SHOULD STRIVE TO ENSURE THAT ALL MEMBERS OF THE COMMUNITY within their jurisdiction ARE ABLE have the ability to actively engage with their local government, members should strive to eliminate barriers to public involvement in decisions, programs, and services, AND TO PROMOTE ACTIVE INVOLVEMENT OF COMMUNITY MEMBERS IN THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS.
Recommended Language: Engagement. Members should ensure community members can actively engage with their local government as well as eliminate barriers and support involvement of the community in the governance process.
Basis for this Recommendation: The actions encouraged in the inclusion guideline under Tenet 4 are more central to engagement than to inclusion. The recommendation is to update the title and move it to Tenet 9. The objective of the new guideline is to encourage members to promote the public’s active engagement in governance. Eighty-six percent of members taking the survey supported this new guideline for Tenet 9.
Current Language: 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.
Handle MANAGE 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.
Recommended Language: Manage all personnel matters with fairness and impartiality.
Basis for this Recommendation: Tenet 11, with its focus on merit-based personnel decisions, has remained largely unchanged since its adoption in 1938. 89% of members responding to the survey supported the proposal to emphasis the principles of fairness and impartiality in personnel and to remove the term “merit”. The CPC further refined the language.
Tenet 11, Guideline 1
Current Language: 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.
Survey Language: NON-DISCRIMINATION.
Equal Opportunity. All decisions pertaining to appointments, pay adjustments, promotions, and discipline should prohibit discrimination UNJUST OR PREJUDICIAL TREATMENT. because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, political affiliation, disability, age, or marital status.
Recommended Language: Delete this guideline.
Basis for this Recommendation: The initial feedback from members noted that there were two distinct actions combined in the “Equal Opportunity” guideline. Therefore, the proposal outlined in the survey offered language for two guidelines. After refinements were made to Tenet 11, the CPC recommended deleting a guideline on non-discrimination finding it to be a repetition of the principle outlined in the Tenet.
Tenet 11, Guideline 2
(Will become the only guideline for Tenet 11)
Current Language (last clause of existing guideline): It should be the members’ personal and professional responsibility to actively recruit and hire a diverse staff throughout their organizations.
Survey Language: DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION. It should be
the A member’s personal and professional responsibility to actively recruit, HIRE, PROMOTE, RETAIN, TRAIN, AND SUPPORT and hire a diverse staff WORKFORCE.
Recommended Language for new Guideline 1: Diversity and Inclusion. It is the member’s responsibility to recruit, hire, promote, retain, train, and support a diverse workforce at all levels of the organization.
Basis for this Recommendation: Eighty-four percent of survey respondents supported the changes to this guideline. Members supported the obligation to ensure diversity and inclusion at all levels of the organization.
Visit the main ICMA Code of Ethics Review page for more information.
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