The list of corrupt public servants in Philadelphia’s recent past is a long one — from former State Sen. Vince Fumo, to former District Attorney Seth Williams, to former State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell. Misuse of campaign funds, questionable real estate deals, tax evasion, parking ticket fixes — there seems to be no facet of municipal life that has not been undermined by a deep lack of accountability.
With all of this, it is easy to be despondent about the state of our governance.
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Putting bad actors in jail is critical for the rule of law, of course, but it does not create much hope, nor does it give us a sense that the future could be different. We have seen around the world that when a culture of corruption exists, one corrupt individual is simply replaced by another.
So what can we do? To make progress, we need to rethink the narrative. Over time, incentivizing good behaviors leads to much better outcomes than punishing bad behaviors. So instead of just catching people doing the wrong thing, we need to catch people doing the right thing.
One way to do this is to very publicly call out people with integrity and celebrate them like rock stars or athletes. Imagine an Oscars or an MVP Award, but for honest public servants.
Doing this has three important effects. It begins to shift norms, so others see that being honest can lead to public recognition. It creates role models, which encourages young people with integrity to enter government and work on behalf of their communities. And it begins to rebuild trust between people in power and citizens, which we need now more than ever.
So this week, Accountability Lab, the Philadelphia Citizen, WURD Radio, SEAMAAC, and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey kicked off Integrity Icon Philadelphia, the first-ever campaign to find, celebrate, and support the most honest public servants in Philly. Any one of Philadelphia’s nonelected 30,000 full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees qualifies.
There is a lot we can learn about all of this from elsewhere. Integrity Icon has seen some dramatic impact around the world. In Mali, a former winner was made minister of justice after becoming an Integrity Icon; in South Africa, a winning policeman was asked to join a national government ethics committee; and in Nepal, young people tell us they are now joining government because they have been inspired after watching the Icons on television.
This has taught us that we need to recognize good people, lift them up, and support them to do even more of what they do. Because they exist everywhere, and they can make real change.
At a time when a lack of integrity seems to be rampant, we need to lead with our values and be for something, not just against something. Isn’t it time Philadelphia moved from the collective “Philly shrug” in the face of corruption, to a “Philly plug” for honest public servants?