GFOA Reinvents Our Profession's Approach to Ethics.

Author:Kavanagh, Shayne
 
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"TRUST IS THE GLUE OF LIFE. IT'S THE MOST ESSENTIAL INGREDIENT IN EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION. IT'S THE FOUNDATION AL PRINCIPLE THAT HOLDS ALL RELATIONSHIPS."

--STEPHEN R. COVEY

In the summer of 2018, GFOA set out to reinvent its approach to ethics. Recent advances in psychological research have revealed compelling insights into how organizations can encourage ethical behavior, giving GFOA an opportunity to develop a new approach to ethics that is far more powerful and useful to members than before.

The starting point for this reinvention was GFOA's code of ethics. The traditional code of ethics focuses on do's and don'ts, and while there is some value to specifying the boundaries of acceptable behavior, the limitation of this approach is that most people already have a good sense of what is right and what is wrong. Research shows that the real impediment to ethical behavior is not a lack of knowledge about right and wrong--it is pressure from the environment to do the wrong thing, or at least ignore other people doing it.

Therefore, GFOA seeks to develop a different kind of code, one that is based on the underlying values that help government finance professionals do the right thing, even when doing the right thing is hard. A code that speaks to underlying values and beliefs is a starting point for developing an organizational culture that encourages ethical behavior. When the organization's culture supports ethical behavior, we become less reliant on heroic individual efforts to maintain ethics in the face of pressure to do the wrong thing. In this article, we will preview the main ideas that are influencing the development of the new GFOA code of ethics. We anticipate adopting the new code at the May 2019 GFOA annual conference.

TRUST: THE FOUNDATION OF A FINANCE OFFICE'S ETHICS

GFOA convened a task force headed by GFOA President Steven Gibson and consisting of volunteer GFOA members from different sizes and types of governments. We also formed a partnership with EthicalSystems.org, a collaboration of leading ethics researchers. This group was charged with developing the new code. The fundamental decision was: What values should the code be based on?

After deliberation and interviews with GFOA members, we settled on "trustworthiness" as the underlying value for the new code. This value resonated because it captures many of the personal values that are important to GFOA members, such as being seen as honest and reliable, producing good work, and providing fair treatment to everyone.

Trustworthiness is not just a popular personal value for finance officers--it is tightly tied to ethical behavior. For example, people build trust through integrity and honesty, consistency between words and deeds, and a genuine interest in the welfare of others. These actions also are consistent with ethical behavior. Conversely, dishonesty, unreliability, and taking advantage of others for personal gain are closely associated with unethical behavior. Furthermore, because we can't constantly monitor the actions of others, we rely on trust to give us confidence that others will act ethically. This is especially germane to a finance office because its work is often technical and difficult for non-experts to validate. Hence, people must trust the finance office to be ethical.

GFOA has identified five characteristics of trustworthy behavior as the basis for a new ethical code. Research suggests that these five characteristics are essential to building trust:

* Integrity and honesty

* Producing results for the community

* Treating people fairly

* Diversity and inclusion

* Reliability and consistency

The rest of this article will examine these five characteristics and...

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