APWA Standards of Professional Conduct: Tenet Nos. 1 & 2

John Ostrowski
Management Consultant
Vancouver, Washington
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

APWA encourages its members to apply certain standards of professional conduct in the performance of their duties. These standards are not a code of ethics but they are based on the ethical conduct we expect of each other in conducting the public's business.

The first two standards are the subject of this article. They are:

  • I will keep the public trust and will not take personal advantage of privileged information or relationships.
  • I will put public interest above individual, group or societal interest and consider my chosen occupation as an opportunity to serve society.

Before I even begin, let me point out something that you might not have noticed. The people who need to read this article aren't reading it. The reason that's true can be seen in the chart on the right. The world is made of more than just good and bad people. The world is made of people who vary along a continuum of goodness and badness. That continuum is simplified in the chart to four broad categories into which we all fit somewhere.

The sinners are not reading this article. They are immune to discussion of ethical issues and are not troubled by breaking the law let alone some standard of professional conduct. If you have people like this in your employ, or worse yet, they are your employers, don't waste your breath on them. They will soon be in jail anyway.

The saints aren't reading this article either. They never do anything wrong and think that standards of professional conduct are not only obvious but too weakly stated regardless of who writes them.

You probably fit into one of the two remaining categories. Or you might fit in the good category most of the time but you are occasionally tempted. If you are always in the tempted category, you are reading this to find out how to bend the rules so that you can do what you're tempted to do and point to this article to show that it's all right. You might as well turn to the salt storage ads right now because I'm not going to authorize any questionable behavior. The first thing that tells you that you have an ethical dilemma is that you are asking yourself about it and finding reasons to justify doing what you know you shouldn't do.

This really isn't very complicated. At least in the case of the first standard it is pretty simple. No, you can't invest in property that you know is going to multiply in value because of the capital improvements you know are going to be built. No, you can't invest in downtown redevelopment when you are one of the decision-makers concerning how that redevelopment takes place. And no, you can't run your own business on public agency time. You also can't moonlight as a flagger on weekends for a contractor that you use on public work during the week. Further, you can't hire your friends to do public work and then go on hunting and fishing trips with them at their expense.

If you're part of the good group this all seems reasonable to you. If you are part of the tempted group, you have questions. Like what if my investment doesn't involve participation in management decisions and what if I excuse myself from all decisions that might be a conflict for me? And what if I run my business at lunchtime and during breaks? And what if I moonlight with a contractor that we don't use for public contracts? The answer to all these questions is found in the fifth and sixth words of the standard. Those words are public trust. The safest way to assess any ethical question regarding public trust is to ask yourself honestly how what you are planning to do will look to the public. Not just any public but rather members of the public who don't know you and won't know or care if you've excused yourself from certain decisions or won't know which contractors do public work.

Public trust is so important to all of us who work in public works that we have to sacrifice the little (sometimes big) personal advantages we can get from knowing privileged information.

If you are tempted, remember I said you weren't going to like what I had to say. If you are good, you will probably want to cut your tempted people some slack and get them to sign agreements that make it clear they can't do their private business on city time. But those agreements only come up when someone asks. If they don't ask and instead assume your employee is moonlighting on city time, you won't know about it until it pops up at a public meeting on some other subject five years from now. During those five years the person has been telling others what he knows and public trust is leaking out of the bag you're carrying and you don't even know it.

Now let's take on the second standard. I have to admit, however, that I don't know what it means. I know what I think it means but then so do you. I have a problem with the idea that societal interest should take a back seat to serving society. Sometimes when we negotiate guiding principles in committees the end result looks a little weird to the outside observer and that's what I think has happened here. I've chosen not to go back to the original Thomas Jeffersons on this one and just work with the part I do understand.

We work in public works to serve society. We don't do it to build monuments to ourselves or to ensure the success of the political party or organization we belong to. This standard is perhaps a little more complicated than the first and a story about a public works employee might illustrate it better than a few paragraphs of platitudes.

There once was a county public works supervisor who was also the mayor of a small city and also sat on the school board. He knew the parking lot at the school needed to be paved and money was short so he had his crew pave it. When one of the saints found out what he had done, they investigated and then fired him. I think he thought he was bending the rules for society's benefit. The problem was that he had a way to do what needed to be done but didn't do it that way. Since he was the mayor, I always thought he could have brokered a deal with the School District and the County and accomplished the same thing through an interlocal agreement.

So if you're the good public official you have systems in place to select the best-qualified contractors and consultants regardless of your personal friendships and you'd never ever think of taking a bribe to facilitate the selection process. You probably know a lot of consultants and contractors but you don't inject that social friendliness into the selection process. You use your knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses to ensure a good product for the public. You also know your social responsibility and don't confuse that with your political bias. You know you have biases, however, and try to identify them and neutralize them in your decisions. You, in fact, do all this so well that you are no longer just good, you're a saint. The best thing about being a saint is that you don't have to read any more ethics articles because they're clearly for those "other people."

Some closing thoughts: Several years ago when I was still a young engineer, I sat on an interview panel. One of the candidates was a guy who had been a mover and shaker in the public works arena. He had more years of experience than those of us on the panel combined. He was applying for this job because he'd lost his previous job for double dipping on his expenses. He'd had his expenses paid to speak at a conference but he also billed his agency for his expenses. Seeing him on the other side of the interview table and knowing he wasn't going to get the job left an impression on me. I knew then that I never wanted to be in his position.

I've been very fortunate in the last few years because I've been able to do quite a few site visits in the Accreditation process. On those trips I always see public works employees doing their best to provide good quality service to the public. This business seems to draw people who want to do a good job for the public. I don't think they have any problem following the standards of professional conduct because they would act that way without guidance. What irritates them and me are the unusual cases of misconduct that make us all look bad. It's a fact of public life that doing good deeds on a daily basis isn't newsworthy. Graft and corruption, however, are front-page, above-the-fold news. We can't change that but we can continue to live our professional lives according to the APWA standards of professional conduct. If we're obvious about it maybe somebody will notice.

John Ostrowski can be reached at (360) 573-7594 or ostrowj@pacifier.com.