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Ethical conflicts in government: danger or distraction?

Bill Coffin | February 13, 2017

It’s been an interesting time in Washington, and a grueling time if you are already sick to death—as many are—of hearing about politics. After following a deeply divisive and contentious election, the Trump administration has had an eventful few weeks following the Inauguration, with multiple executive orders, legal challenges, public protests, Twitter storms, and more.

Recently, I was contacted by a concerned reader who wrote me a wonderful letter about one of my past editorials. I had referred to President Trump simply as “Trump,” and the writer expressed concern that perhaps Compliance Week was veering into the political space, or worse: it’s editor in chief was going to get up on a political soapbox and stay there.

These are all valid concerns. I have been in been in business publishing for almost 24 years. In that time, if I have learned anything, it is that your readers really don’t want to hear about your personal political views. The glory of business publishing is we are in a unique position to speak deeply about the issues, challenges, and opportunities that face a particular profession. Moreso than the mainstream media, which rarely has the bandwidth to get to know a focused professional group enough to cover their world regularly.

We will continue to cover the news from Washington, and from the Trump administration, to the extent that it affects the world of compliance. Whether one agrees with the administration or not, it has a clear legislative agenda that has very real implications for how compliance officers conduct the business of compliance, and that’s worth covering.

To that end, we will be launching very shortly a new newsletter that will run on Thursdays, that covers specifically new regulatory compliance news coming out of Washington. From what we have seen so far this year, there will be no shortage of topics to address, especially as many of them involve legal disputes that will take months to resolve, as well as other legislative initiatives that will take even longer to implement. When the government moves slowly, the world gets ample opportunity to understand exactly what Washington is trying to achieve. We look forward to producing this newsletter and sending it your way. But more than that, we look forward to any comments you might have on how valuable you find this content. What we think is worth covering is important; what you think is worth covering is even more so.

So with that in mind, I wanted to turn to the topic of ethics in government. President Trump, and his administration, have been accused of numerous ethical conflicts of interest, many of which are ongoing. Some of them carry significant legal consequences, others are mere breaches of long-standing tradition. But all of them are, collectively, an issue for the administration. Now, President Trump is hardly the first sitting president to be hit with ethical red flags, nor will he be the last. The size of those flags, and the number of them, however, feels somewhat unprecedented, even when you adjust for political partisanship, division, and the sheer mean-spiritedness that has enveloped all of Washington and our body politic.

Still, ethical concerns have been raised, and by people whose own integrity writs serious consideration of the points they make. Why do I mention this? One of the things that struck me most when I spoke with members of the compliance community at Compliance Week 2016 and at many other professional gatherings throughout the year—as well as those industry leaders we interviewed as part of our 2016 Top Minds project—was how much compliance professionals view ethics and a culture of honest to be a central part of the evolution of compliance. Compliance is, and always must be, more than a simply checklist of items to do. It must be a way of thinking, a method of operating, a mentality of integrity. That is perhaps the very best way for organizations to ensure they do not run afoul of regulatory expectations, ensure that their organizations operate successfully and sustainably, and without ever making their partners and clients feel that they have been exploited or dealt with unfairly or dishonestly. Ethics underpins all of this. Ethics is that which can help there be fewer regulations, for when all can be trusted to behave honestly and honorably, there is less cause to bring the law into it.

Businesses understand this. Government, not always so much. But corporate compliance officers understand what’s at stake when they behave ethically, and they appreciate better than most what it means when leaders of any kind of organization act without adhering to the best practices we would all demand of ourselves. We report on compliance failures and ethical conflicts in governments around the world because even if they do not directly impact how compliance officers do their jobs on a daily basis, they are matters compliance officers understand and appreciate perhaps more than anybody.

I would like to draw your attention to a poll we are running this week about how compliance officers view ethical failings in government. On one hand, this has no real direct impact on how compliance officers do their job. Isn’t it just business as usual? On the other hand, tone from the top matters, especially from those who would create and enforce the rules by which we are expected to behave. Where do you land on this? How do you feel about the role of ethics in government? Does it matter to you? Does it feel like a direct correlation to how you perform your work? Is it just a distantly related distraction? Compliance Week wants to hear from you on this on our poll, through social media, directly in letters….however you wish to make your voice heard. What you say matters, especially because Compliance Week is always listening.