What's On Your Wall?

Is the ICMA Code of Ethics hanging on your wall? It should be! The Code is the quintessential definition of what it means to be a professional dedicated to public service.

ARTICLE | Aug 20, 2015

Be An Advocate for Ethics

Walls—the physical ones—are mini testimonials to what we value and hold dear. Treasured family photos, artwork, religious symbols, and pictures of places traveled can grace the walls of our homes. They serve as pleasant reminders and tell the inhabitants’ life stories to those who visit.

At work, the walls are testaments to credentials, accomplishments, and values. The diploma, award, or recognition by peers; a thank-you from the previous employer; community recognition; or perhaps the ICMA Credentialed Manager certificate or service award are all sources of pride.

They remind you of the value of hard work and public service. They send the message to any visitor that a competent professional occupies this space, and on a bad day, these testaments may encourage you to push forward.

What’s On Your Wall?

Is the ICMA Code of Ethics hanging on your wall? It should be! The Code is the quintessential definition of what it means to be a professional dedicated to public service.

It’s far more than just having the credentials to do the work. It’s having the commitment to the highest standards of honor and integrity in both public and personal conduct so that you can merit the respect and confidence of staff, elected officials, and the public.

Being an ICMA member and committing to the values of the Code is that distinguishing quality. Others may have a similar title and educational credentials, but if they don’t have ethics, their bad conduct harms the organization, the public’s trust, and this profession.

Hanging the Code in a visible location serves as a reminder to always incorporate the values outlined in the Code in decision making and conduct. It can also introduce the Code to others—be they staff, residents, or elected officials.

Here are ways that you can promote the values of the ICMA Code of Ethics, with the end goal to build trust with the public and to improve local government:


Set the tone with elected officials and wannabees. In what seems to be a never-ending campaign season, introducing the value of political neutrality to current officials and candidates can be helpful. It can be a gracious way to decline your neighbor’s request to help fund her campaign for school board.

Or it can help when you have to explain to the reporter why you cannot comment on whether your community’s mayor would make a good state legislator, why a friendly candidate for county commission shouldn’t pass out campaign T-shirts to county employees she encounters in the field or at meetings, or why you can’t help a candidate for city council with his campaign brochure, even if it involves just checking the facts about the city’s budget.

Build a unified management team. You recruit and promote smart, talented, and technically proficient department heads and assistants. And then you invest considerable effort to create a unified team to lead the organization.

Hopefully, department directors and assistants on your team come with a strong understanding of public sector ethics. Perhaps this is a result of their membership in ICMA, or because of their membership in another professional association that has solid ethical standards.

A word of caution about the ethical standards of other associations: They tend to focus on the technical aspects of the work. And given the differences between finance and planning, for example, they may not have standards in common.

Some standards may not be addressed at all. You might be surprised to know that staying out of politics is not addressed in the ethical standards of other professional associations.

Adopting the ICMA Code of Ethics as the gold standard for your senior leadership is one way to establish common values that align with yours. One city manager made it a condition of employment in hiring department directors.

Create a code of ethics for your own organization. The good news is that 86 percent of local governments do have a code of ethics. The other 14 percent will want to get moving on this front.1

The principles outlined in the ICMA tenets are a solid foundation for creating an organization-wide code. The guidelines can be tailored to suit the audience.

Spread the message that ethics matter. We need to mobilize the 9,800 ICMA members to help enlighten the public and elected officials about why high ethical standards are so critical to good government.

Following ICMA’s decision to publicly censure a Massachusetts town manager who ran for elected office in his hometown, four managers signed a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. The letter, which was actually published, explained why political neutrality should matter to all.

They closed with a powerful message: “ICMA rarely issues public censures so readers can correctly infer the gravity of the violation. The tenets and professional standards to which we subscribe are the cornerstone of our profession. They are not a matter of convenience easily abandoned; they represent a Code of behavior every bit as important as those we expect from physicians, educators, and lawyers.”

The full letter is available for reading on the ICMA website at icma.org/ethics.


1 2012 ICMA State of the Professional Survey.

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