Watch Out for Ethical Complacency

Harmless looks may be deceiving.

by / April 3, 2007
Chotskies: "Generally useless crap of little or no value. Similar to knickknacks, popularized in Weird-Al Yankovic's eBay song."

From the Urban Dictionary

IT chotskies are everywhere. Stainless steel commuter cups, pens, faux leather portfolios, T-shirts, and even useful things like travel-size USB hubs, mini screwdriver sets and those stress release squeeze things -- all emblazoned with the logo of one technology company or another. Marketers convinced themselves that they're useful in building brand awareness and even maintaining affinity among users.

That may all be true. And such promotional goodies may be effective in the private sector. But the law of unintended consequences, being what it is, creates problems for the public-sector IT community. Insert your favorite axiom about perception here, but in the fishbowl of doing IT in public, IT staffs and bosses are minor league players in the major league political game that's all about perception.

In the dry but clear language of federal executive order 12731, "employees must strive to avoid any action that would create the appearance that they are violating the law or ethical standards." At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the majority in Congress shifted partly because a scandal-weary electorate was attracted to the promise to "drain the swamp" of cozy relationships, ethical violations and outright corruption.

At the state level, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer made no secret of his intent to hold public agencies to at least the same level of accountability to which he held industry during his tenure as the state's attorney general.

The ink is still drying on the final versions of new legislation heading to the desks of governors, but there was a clear impulse to clean house in the many initiatives under active consideration.

To signal a fresh start in Ohio's executive branch, newly elected Gov. Ted Strickland introduced ethics rules for government employers that prohibit accepting any gifts, including meals worth more than $20. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. went further including "a complete ban on gifts to any executive branch employee."

The Oregon Legislature took steps to ban free gifts and meals. Likewise, with a "no gifts" sign on his reception desk, former cop and freshman Washington state Rep. Christopher Hurst proposed a total ban on gifts and meals because freebies send voters the wrong message.

Freebies also send the wrong message to elected officials. The problem with chotskies is that they help create the perception that relationships between government agencies and vendors are closer than they ought to be -- and often closer than they actually are.

The good news is that the scruples of most seasoned public officials -- particularly the signing authorities on contracts with vendors -- exceed the ethics rules under which they work. They go out of their way to avoid conflicts and the perception of conflicts.

The bad news is that signs of corporate chotskie infestations are readily apparent in the labyrinth of cubicles in most government IT shops.

Logo-laden cubicle accessories don't indict the ethics or integrity of the overworked, often underpaid occupants, but they do set traps for the individuals and risk tainting the reputation of the organization.

For their part, vendors carefully craft disclaimers about their intention to do right by the relevant gift and ethics rules but include reminders that compliance is ultimately the recipient's responsibility.

Ironically it's enough to make you feel exposed -- even (and especially) with a closet full of T-shirts and trinkets.
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.