Ethics Awareness: A Full-Time Responsibility

March may be Ethics Awareness Month, but ethics awareness is a year-round responsibility.

Mar 1, 2018 | ARTICLE

National Ethics Awareness Month comes around in March every year—and that’s a good reminder to stop and reflect on the importance of building and maintaining an ethical culture in every local government organization.

But the need for ethics awareness isn’t limited to March. It’s a year-round responsibility for professional local government leaders and a key pillar in ICMA’s strategic plan.

ICMA and its members have a long track record of ethical awareness and conduct in their personal and professional activities, based on the ICMA Code of Ethics and its peer-to-peer enforcement process. Members have shown their dedication by actively participating in ethics-related sessions at state and national conferences, by engaging in debates and discussions about revising the Code’s tenets and guidelines, by forwarding reports of ethically questionable conduct to ICMA for potential scrutiny, and by a steady stream of requests for ethics consultation and advice.

Ethics Resources from ICMA

ICMA supports members, other local government staff, and elected officials with an array of ethics resources:

  • Ethics Matter! A monthly column in Public Management (PM) magazine offers practical advice on ethics issues and challenges plus insights on real-world scenarios. Read this one: “Stay in Your Own Lane.”
  • Ethics 101. This flexible online ethics training course helps ensure that local government staff have a proper grounding in the organization’s values and can deal with ethics issues that arise on the job. Learn more.
  • Ethics Workshops and Technical Assistance. Review the offerings for leadership, staff, elected officials, boards, and commissions, and select the ones that best serve your organization’s needs.
  • Ethics Enforcement. ICMA’s peer-based enforcement process helps maintain and strengthen the reputation of local government professionals for unimpeachable ethical conduct. See the Rules of Procedure for enforcement.
  • Confidential Ethics Advice. Martha Perego, ICMA’s director of member services and ethics (; 202-962-3668) offers ethics advice on request to help members navigate ethical dilemmas and make sound decisions. Ask before you act!

Tap these resources from ICMA to make every month Ethics Awareness Month.


ICMA Code of Ethics (Full Version with Guidelines)

ICMA Code of Ethics (Tenets Only, Suitable for Framing)




I'm a new ICMA member. I was

I'm a new ICMA member. I was encouraged to join from several of our Professors in the MPA program I completed at Sam Houston State University. I’m Army officer and will retire within the next year and plan to transition to the civilian sector in the field of Public Management. One of the classes we had was an Ethics in Public Administration class and we took a look at the ICMA code (as well as others) as a small part of the curriculum. I’d like to offer these comments in the spirit of an academic dialogue, and not as any type of inflammatory emotion based argument. I hope it’s receive it in the spirit offered, and that we can engage in a dialogue of reasoned persuasion.  


My question centers on the ICMA code of ethics as it was published on the ICMA web page, dated June 2017. In our MPA ethics course, we learned about the major ethical traditions that have influenced our society and the field of Public Administration (the main text was Practical Ethics in Public Administration by Garofalo & Geuras).


As I read through the textbook (and other material) it occurred to me that the ICMA Code of Ethics fails to meet the test for what a code of Ethics is, as defined in that textbook, page 12, "What codes of ethics do, according to Bowman and Williams, is acknowledge the ambiguities and complexities of public service”, and "offer interpretive frameworks to clarify decision making dilemmas.”


My primary question is this: Which ethical foundation does the ICMA advocate for? The code of ethics doesn’t really establish “what we believe” (as the ICMA corporate body) but seems to jump right into “what we do and don’t do”. What I’ve been taught to date seems to suggest that the ICMA Code of Ethics is more a Code of Conduct and bypasses the “what we believe” aspects of an ethical model. In all of the major academia I’ve been able to find and study, the majority of scholars agree that a code of ethics must start with establishing a framework – a framework that articulates what the organization believes.


As an example, we learned that ethical scholars group the major ethical frameworks into 4 general groupings. First is “Virtue” as reflected by Plato, Locke, C.S. Lewis, and others. Next is Deontology centered on the works of Immanuel Kant, and perhaps including Machiavelli. Third, was Teleology/Utilitarianism centered on the works of Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Lastly, we learned about Intuitionism


As a career Army officer, I’ve always had training in ethics that focused on the behavior aspect, much like what is expressed in the ICMA Code. I’ve never really given any thought to the major tenants of ethical traditions and the perspective that one simply can’t reconcile the Virtue traditions with the Deontology traditions, and so on.


Consider: if my ethical foundation is centered on the Virtue school (Plato, Locke, Lewis), those ideas are at odds with the ideas of Deontology (Kant, Machiavelli). This is perhaps worth a compare & contrast paper all in itself, but I’m sure you know the major differences.


So, my underlying question may be worth restating: What ethical foundation does the ICMA advocate for? From what I’ve learned about the field of Public Administration, along with my professional career, it seems the major ethical foundation that should be advocated for are the ideas stemming from Plato, Locke, Lewis, and others, as demonstrated in our found fathers ideas. It seems that the ideas of Machiavelli run counter to being a Public Administrator that swears an oath to the principles of our Republic.  


Discussion: as a specific example, the ICMA recently censured and barred Jack Schnirman, for violating tenet 7. While it is clear he violated the tenant, what is the underlying ethical wrong? Tenet 7 simply expresses what the ICMA says “thou shall not do” with regard to public office. From an ethical academic perspective of educating and influencing members to learn, why is that wrong? If ones ethical foundation, or world view, is centered on Machiavelli, then what Jack did was perfectly acceptable? (I don’t know Jack, so this is not a personal defense.) If ones ethical foundation is centered on moral relativism, then how are we to judge his actions and through what filter? Again, is it just because the ICMA code says thou shall not (which is a might makes right ethical approach)? For an exact example of “why” this matters, I encourage you to explore the definition of “happiness” according to the virtue school of ethics as compared to the Deontological school of ethics. Kant told us that happiness only mattered from a humanism perspective. Plato told us something very different. Our founding fathers took a view expressed by Plato and others we’ve come to know as virtue based ethics.


Perhaps if the ICMA Code of Ethics started out with specifying the ethical framework, or again, the world view from which and through we base our belief system on, then it might be easier to fully articulate why behavior such as Jack’s is normally not “ok”.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic – as a new guy in the field, I am still excited about this stuff!



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