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Government / Political Governance Intro

In a representative democracy, men and women serving in public office – whether elected or appointed – must view their service as a public trust.   Each day, men and women raise their right hands to be sworn in as executives, legislators and administrators, agreeing to protect and defend the constitutions of the United States and of their home States, and the laws, rules and regulations of their governmental subdivisions. 

Public servants then embark on careers where they are entrusted with the health, finances, safety and well-being of their constituents – and of course, with public purse strings…the taxpayers’ money.  On too many occasions in recent times, they -- like Star Wars’ Addison Skywalker -- are seduced by the “Darkside” and fall victim to bribery, corruption, greed, or political cronyism – any of these leading them to betray the public trust.

As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt commented during the Great Depression, when many Americans depended on the public sector for sustenance and even survival:  “I never forget I live in the People’s House…”

Public service cannot be seen as a path to padding one’s pockets, directing public funds to friends or relatives, or as a bazaar-like get-rich quick-scheme. Most important, elected officials must resist the temptation to put their office up for sale to the highest bidder – to lobbyists, corporations, political action committees, special interest groups, or other special interests intent on buying and controlling publicly-elected bodies.

Recent unfortunate events -- while disappointing on many human levels -- have brought about reform, changes in procedure, new laws, stricter guidelines, punishment for both those who have betrayed the public trust and those that have seduced them.  And most important, greater accountability in the public sector!

Campaign fundraising and spending abuses have recently toppled several federal legislators and caused changes in how such funds can be raised and directed in federal campaigns. Lobbyists’ excesses have been vetted in the national media resulting in criminal charges being filed and reforms being put in place.  News of the inappropriate conduct on the part of several public officials caused several to resign their positions in state and federal government -- and some may face criminal charges.  In this era of reform and public expectations of greater accountability, appointed officials have not been spared scrutiny for alleged conflicts of interest.

Perhaps the most interesting recent case involved the [elected] New York State Comptroller who was forced to resign after he admitted to using state employees to chauffeur and assist his wife, costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. The allegation was made to the Comptroller’s “hotline” which was established to help report financial abuse by state workers.  What does it all prove?  That the system to monitor fraud and corruption does work – even when it cites violations of the system sponsor. 

While our democratic process is still a model for the world, it can be flawed and open to abuse. 

There is hope however!

The Center for Ethics in Government, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization located at the National Conference of State Legislatures, is only one of many groups that are focused on raising the ethical standards of those who serve and the public awareness of what should be expected of those in public office.  Check in on the Web with: http://www.ncsl.org/programs/ethics/restoring_trust.htm

 

The Center believes that:

 

-         Public trust extends to all who work in the public sector - elected officials, staff and advocates alike;

-         Public trust requires us to place the public's interest above their own personal interests;

-         Legislators, advocates and public servants have a responsibility to exhibit the highest ethical standards and behavior; and

-         All public servants have a particular responsibility to help restore the public's trust in government.

The Center for Responsive Politics is a non-partisan, non-profit research group active in the monitoring Federal legislators. Through several Web based databases, the Center tracks money in politics, and its effect on elections and public policy. It conducts computer-based research on campaign finance issues for the news media, academics, activists, and the public at large. Their goal is “creating a more educated voter, an involved citizenry, and a more responsive government.”

Check Out: http://www.crp.org/

Throughout the country there are grass roots organizations monitoring the financing of political campaigns, the votes and actions of elected officials and the development of policies and laws that impact the public on many levels.  Through “advocate transparency” these organizations are holding a mirror to governments’ activities and are causing governments to re-evaluate their actions. By keeping both the public and the media informed about the actions of government, these “governmental watchdogs” are bolstering the resolve of those in the public sector and defeating those that would damage the republic by forcing it to the “Darkside.”

In many communities the public has spoken and elected officials and policy makers must now sign formal Codes of Ethics upon appointment; annually disclosure their finances and those of their immediate family; place investments in blind trusts; publicly state potential conflicts of interest; follow strict procedures in the awarding of contracts; and follow a “freedom of information” procedure established by statute.

The editors of Accountability Central will focus your attention on what is being done right to ensure Ethics and Accountability in the public sector and also to highlight the abuses that erode the public trust and lure those in public office to bend the rules or betray their trust.

As always, we are interested in your comments, questions and thoughts on Public Sector Governance and Accountability.

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