February 16, 2010

Government Transparency: An Oxymoron

For almost a decade, EthicsPoint has provided software and services that help organizations gather, review and resolve issues and events that impact their operations. Most of these issues and events are risk factors that can dramatically affect confidence and share value or result in a serious monetary loss. At EthicsPoint, we provide services to a multitude of organizations from a variety of industries. But if you peel back the onion, you will notice that we service only a handful of municipalities and no government agencies, I’ve often wondered why that is.

I used to believe it was because EthicsPoint delivers its services in the “cloud” as a software-as-a-service provider and doesn’t provide a premise offering that can be put behind an organization’s firewall. But lately I have come to the conclusion that transparency and government -any government - simply doesn’t exist. For all practical intents, the US government became a venture capital company in 2009 and EthicsPoint does service several financial institutions. Therefore, I don’t believe it’s the function of the organization that dictates a lack of transparency, but rather something inherent in the way our government is run. As a tax payer this is frustrating to me.

I was a history major in college and looking back I don’t know if real transparency has ever existed in our government. The reasons for this lack of transparency may be varied, but the result has been the same. For instance, in the earliest days it was a literacy void and the general public’s inability to read helped support our representative form of government. Next, it was a genuine communication failure in reaching the populous due to distance and an unreliable “yellow” journalistic press. Then it was a protectionist view – because we couldn’t let the commies know what we were doing. Today it is just the “way things are done.”

It is somewhat akin to the situation of a plumber not showing up to your house and when you express your discontent to a co-worker she immediately understands and says, “Yeah, that’s just the way those guys are.” We’ve become so accustomed to bad government that we roll our eyes and say, “Yeah, that’s just the way those guys are.”

Several months ago I blogged about “hating the word Ethics” and repeatedly expressed that I personally had difficulty drawing a definitive ethical line when dealing with certain issues or events in the compliance world. Earlier this week, Mark Meaney, the number two man at the city of Chicago’s Office of Compliance, resigned amid allegations he mishandled an intern’s 2008 sexual harassment complaint against a top official at Chicago’s 911 emergency center. I had the opportunity to work with Mark and I personally find this hard to believe. He and his boss Tony Boswell had the very unenviable and daunting task of developing and running the compliance department for the city of Chicago.

The city of Chicago has been monitoring city hiring since the 2005 scandal that found a member of Mayor Daley’s staff guilty of rigging city hiring and promotions to benefit pro-Daley political workers. However, the city’s hiring monitor and other consultants have proven inefficient and, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, have cost Chicago taxpayers $6.2 million. It has also been reported the city’s hiring monitor has been accused of falsifying allegations of misconduct by Boswell and Meaney in order to discredit them and gain total control of the city’s hiring process. This is where that ethical line starts to blur.

The situation gets better or worse depending on your perspective. If you know anything about whistleblowing, it is the responsibility of the compliance officer to protect the organization from any “retribution” resulting from an individual coming forward. The ethical line blurs even further once you know the 911 center official in question is a high-ranking deputy who was stripped of his responsibilities in 2008 after blowing the whistle on alleged contract irregularities involving Motorola that cost taxpayers $2.25 million.

Mark’s quote in the Sun Times says it all. “It was a privilege to have been part of something that had never been tried before; corporate-style compliance in municipal government…Mayor Daley should be applauded in his efforts at true reform. Unfortunately, fear and blame seem to be winning over culture change. I return to the private sector with no regrets for having spent the last two years working with some of the best public servants anywhere.”

What a twisted web. You have heard me say many times the role of a compliance officer is not black and white. The role requires discernment and often a balancing act of issues that would make Solomon shudder. This is no different in government or the private sector. Let’s consider for a moment that the evidence in this case is inconclusive (let me be clear that I have no inside information on this matter). Yes, there is an accusation but it is difficult to fully substantiate. There are multiple variables in play and the subject of the investigation is a person who “blew the whistle.” Appropriately, you might have some trepidation that the accusations could be retaliatory. So I ask you – what would you do?

I like Mike and Tony, which makes this difficult for me. It upsets me that in the public sector what some members of government say in front of a microphone, even for their own benefit or gain, often shapes the court of public opinion, and good guys pay the price.


1 Response to "Government Transparency: An Oxymoron"

Doug Cornelius said... February 18, 2010 at 9:16 AM

David -

I think there are many factors that impede government transparency.

One is corruption and incompetency. Those who are doing bad or questionable things do not want that information coming out.

The second is the volume of information. Government, like many organizations, has a content management problem. They produce enormous amounts of information in various formats and platforms.

The third is access to that volume of information. The federal government has gotten better under the current administration in making more information available through the web.

The fourth is culture. Government employees (again, like many corporate employees) default to keeping information private, rather than public.

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David Childers
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