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APWA Standards of Professional Conduct: Tenet Nos. 4, 5 & 6

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Port Angeles, Washington
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

The Board of Directors of the American Public Works Association advocates the following Standards of Professional Conduct to guide its members in the conduct of their business. The Board of Directors encourages its members, whether individual or organization, to apply these standards to every aspect of their professional life.

As a member of the American Public Works Association, I am dedicated and committed to maintaining the following Standards of Professional Conduct.

  1. I will keep the public trust and will not take personal advantage of privileged information or relationships.
  2. I will put public interest above individual, group or societal interest and consider my chosen occupation as an opportunity to serve society.
  3. I will encourage sustainability through wise use of resources; whether they are natural resources, financial resources or human resources.
  4. I will consider public health and safety in every aspect of my work.
  5. I will conduct myself with personal integrity in a manner that enhances and honors the reputation of the profession, my employer, my community and the association.
  6. I will ensure that the work for which I am responsible complies with all legal requirements of the local, state, provincial or federal governments.
  7. I will strive to plan, design, build, maintain and operate public infrastructure in a manner that respects the environment and the ability of government to adequately preserve these assets for succeeding generations.

In his earlier article on this subject [June issue, p. 10], John Ostrowski wrote about keeping the public trust and putting public interest above individual or group interest. The safest way to assess any ethical question regarding public trust is to ask yourself how what you do will look to the public; or as we say in public works, "How will it read in the newspaper?" This generally means even avoiding the appearance of doing wrong; public trust is so important to all of us who work in public works. In the second part of his article, he mentions that we work in public works to serve society; we don't do it to benefit one group over another.

In the second article on Standards of Professional Conduct [June issue, p. 12], Gary Strack wrote about encouraging sustainability through wise use of resources. This means being more aware of and sensitive to the environment and preserving our resources. In addition, he writes that sustainability is the ability to continue to provide services or activities through time, no matter what events occur—natural or man-made. The second part of his article relates to providing public works services in a manner that respects and preserves the environment; preserving the assets our agencies construct is a continual challenge.

This last article will focus on the remaining parts of the Standards of Professional Conduct, namely:

  • Considering public health and safety in what I do.
  • Conducting my actions with personal integrity.
  • Complying with all legal requirements.

We will begin our discussion about the consideration of public health and safety in every aspect of our work. As I read over this section, I will have to admit that I'm not sure what the original crafters of this document actually meant by "I will consider public health and safety in every aspect of my work." This statement should be a given in all the activities we do. That being said, I will attempt to share with you my thoughts on this subject.

Certainly, the first thing that comes to mind is that I will not compromise design and construction standards in any way that might be detrimental to the "health and safety" of the public. In our industry, there are a number of design standards to follow (ASCE, ITE, AASHTO, FHA, and FFA, to name a few). These standards have been tested and have been accepted as the standard of the industry. Even though I am a registered Civil Engineer in Colorado, Washington and Arizona, I do not practice design on a daily basis. I recognize this limitation and will consult with professional staff and consultants before I would begin to undertake a major design on my own.

The American Society of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics, Canon #7 states "Engineers should keep current in their specialty fields by engaging in professional practice, participating in continuing education courses, reading in the technical literature and attending professional meetings and seminars." I also believe in continuing education requirements for professional certifications; at the very least, it keeps me current with changing criteria. I also think the intent of this concept would deal with trying to copy another professional's design to meet a similar situation without checking with that professional in order to save some money. Don't assume that their design will fit your particular situation. Beware of prototype designs without thoroughly checking.

The second part of this particular concept should be that unless there are documented and appropriate reasons, there should be no deviation between the design (bid) and the materials and methods used in the construction of public improvements. You should never accept inferior products, materials or workmanship in order to reduce the cost of the improvements. If you can't build it right, don't build it at all. The constructed improvement may perform and look good during the warranty period, but would not hold up during the anticipated life of the project. Even if the product does not entirely fail, the inferior product could become a safety issue or cause unnecessary maintenance and repair costs at a later date.

The last item inferred in this particular concept of the Standards is the safety of the public during construction. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and other documents, spell out the criteria for safety in construction work zones. Do not compromise the safety of the traveling public to save project costs. This same principle should also apply to those projects carried out by in-house staff; do not compromise the safety of your staff or the public in any way.

The next concept of the Standards deals with how we conduct ourselves to maintain our personal integrity. Tenet #3 of the ICMA Code of Ethics states..."be dedicated to the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships in order that the member may merit the respect and confidence of the elected officials, of other officials and employees, and of the public." What this means is that public works employees must conduct themselves so as to maintain public trust and confidence in their performance of the public trust. It also means that we have to conduct our official and personal affairs in such a manner as to give the clear impression that we have not been or cannot be improperly influenced.

I think the key here is the "giving of the impression" of having high ideals of integrity. In my 25 years of public service, I have never been approached by an individual or an organization to do something unethical. Either they decided that I wasn't influential enough to approach or, I like to think, I gave the impression that I couldn't be improperly influenced. This is not to be confused with working with individuals or organizations to bring about a compromise that is acceptable to all concerned; this is called negotiating. However, this negotiating must be kept within the parameters of the rules, regulations and accepted practices and without personal (or group) gain.

Probably of all of the concepts of the APWA Standards, the section on "complying with all legal requirements" may be the easiest to comprehend. "You do the crime, you do the time" is as simple as you can state it. As a public works professional it is your responsibility to understand and comply with all aspects of local, state, provincial and federal governments. If you don't agree with the regulations, work within the system to have them changed; but don't ignore them. Seek out interpretations of the regulations from a variety of sources if you don't understand them.

Another aspect of this principle is that of ignorance. There is a saying that "ignorance is bliss"; however, in the case of public works, "ignorance is no excuse of the law." What you don't know can "hurt" you. It is your responsibility to keep current on new regulations and revisions to the regulations; you may be in violation without even knowing about the regulations. This is called continuing education and is one of your prime responsibilities as a public works manager. APWA is an excellent source of information regarding updates on new/revised regulations.

Ethics in public works is so important that there is a management practice that is contained within the 5th Edition of the Public Works Management Practices Manual. Practice 1.5 states "The code of ethics for employees establishes standards and guidelines for ethical conduct and principles of public service that strengthen public confidence in the integrity of the agency. The code may include such items as political involvement, acceptance of gifts and conflicts of interest. The ethics of an organization are generally contained in its mission, vision and values; and in the organization's culture. Public accountability and integrity are examples of values that may be fostered by the organization."

In summary, members of the Leadership and Management Committee thought enough about the subject of ethics in public works to share with you their thoughts regarding this critical element in our profession. The services provided by public works officials require honesty, impartiality, fairness and equity and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety and welfare. Ninety-nine percent of the time we get it right. It's the one percent that gets the attention of the public.

It's one thing to have a "code of ethics" and another to actually know and follow an organization's code. Don't assume that because you have a "code of ethics" that all employees know the code or follow the code. In a recent survey by Ethics Resource Center-2005 National Business Ethics Survey, 58% of the employees surveyed perceived their organization to have a strong ethical culture; however, 42% indicated a weak ethic culture. You might consider a short re-training session with your existing employees to reinforce your code and values. In this day and age, we all need a refresher course in ethics.

"Be true to your work, your word, and your friends." - Henry David Thoreau

William A. Sterling, P.E., is a former Director of Public Works for the City of Greeley, Colorado. A past APWA Top Ten recipient, he can be reached at sterling@publicworksmanagement.com.