Ethics Enforcement at NATSAP and IECA;
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Many organizations have very high standards on paper members are obligated to adhere to as a privilege of membership.   It would be possible for us to write an article that would be literally truthful but misleading, as it would convey the false impression that the on paper standards are stated hypocritically.  It would be truthful because we would correctly point out that there is vast room in most organizations for members to operate outside the stated standards with impunity.  It would be misleading because – upon close examination – there is no reason to draw conclusion from that fact that the organizations have been intentionally deceptive on this point or that they sanction the out of compliance behavior.  The discrepancy is not about hypocrisy but legal technicalities that make the job of enforcing such standards quite difficult.  We also have suggestions for overcoming part of this difficulty. 

While we consider this issue in general, the organizations which we are most concerned with are NATSAP and IECA.  We want to affirm that NATSAP and  IECA are approaching the problem at issue here in ways that are generally considered appropriate and probably exactly in accord with what legal counsel has likely advised them to do.   We would like them to take a different, perhaps more aggressive approach, as you will see, but we do not accuse either of bad faith or intentional deception.  

In the case of NATSAP, two documents present the relevant standards for members:  NATSAP’s Ethical Principles  and NATSAP’s Principles of Good Practice; in the  case of IECA, the relevant standards are expressed in IECA’s Principles of Good Practice.   

Each of the organizations has a committee charged with maintaining the prescribed standard, as is common practice in many organizations.    In actual practice, the function of each such committee is primarily to hear complaints about possible non-compliance and to render decisions on whether or not the complaint is valid and when valid to prescribe an appropriate remedy.  (It may also be a policy recommending body, charged with recommending modifications to membership standards as appropriate, but if so, that function is not at issue in this article). 

This means that no action is taken or even considered to be taken until someone enters a formal complaint against a member.  The person making that complaint must identify himself or herself and present all evidence necessary to prove non-compliance on the part of a member.  It is relevant that any action, no matter how inappropriate it might seem by common sense, is valid basis for action unless it explicitly places the member out of compliance with the standards at issue. 

This can be frustrating to people who see things going on that they don’t like and think should be obvious to those charged with maintaining the standards.  A program owner once described to us his reason for being angry with NATSAP and declining membership. He suggested that they were not serious in enforcing their standards.  As he did, he described us what another program had done.  Mentally we agreed that the alleged behavior of the other program was seriously inappropriate, but also noticed that it was not an issue that had been covered explicitly in the standards NATSAP published. 

On that basis there clearly was no way NATSAP could have taken action against the allegedly offending program. Arguably they could have recommended amending the standards but that would be a very complex process that would have taken a very long time to put through the process of organizational approval and adoption.   Because the issue at hand was about how programs relate to each other and the issues addressed in NATSAP’s Ethical Principles  and NATSAP’s Principles of Good Practice are mostly about how programs relate to each other, it is not clear that members would have supported a change.   

We think there is little understanding that the ability of these organizations to act on a complaint is restricted in that way.  The committees in these organizations that act on these complaints are not able to act on whether or not the members of the committee find behavior offensive personally; they can only act when it is provable that the member is not behaving in the manner that they explicitly agreed to behave in order to gain or retain membership.  It is important to remember that any internal enforcement of behavioral or ethical standards is restricted in that way.  In order for any action to be taken there must be a specific non-compliance with an agreed upon standard. 

We think of other complaints we have heard from programs about behavior of consultants.  In this case, we think of allegations from a school, addressed to us privately, involving consultant behavior when hosted on a tour of the school or lunch or dinner meeting to promote the school.  In these cases there usually is an explicit non-compliance (alleged) with respect to the official standards.   But the programs are legitimately concerned about the cost in lost business of bringing a complaint.  No matter how well justified the complaint, they don’t expect much business from the consultant that they turned in.  Some programs have been brave enough to address such situations, and while Ethics Committee actions at IECA are confidential, we have reason to believe they have been very supportive to programs that have had the courage to challenge consultants who are noncompliant.

The biggest problem is the fact that due to legal reasons the committees charged with ensuring adherence to standards can only act when someone brings a formal complaint regarding an issue that is spelled out explicitly in the written documents describing regulations members agree to follow as a condition of membership .  The reason is that members who are the object of a complaint are entitled to due process which must include having the matter decided by an impartial hearing group whose only concern is adherence to the written word. 

If the committee is to impose specific sanctions which must be observed in order for the member to retain membership, then all committee members participating in the decision must be impartial and have no prior relationship to the complaint.   This means that people with a concern must make a formal complaint, supply adequate evidence to prove the case and be subject to defamation suit by the member about whom the complaint is made.   From the point of view of the person complaining, this feels like needing to be the prosecutor. Members of the committee generally know what is going on in an organization, but cannot be both judge and prosecutor. 

One consequence is that the general public cannot simply make a phone call to complain about something, have someone at the organization look into it, and have that lead to formal action by the organization, if indicated.  To be fair, at IECA, people have the ability to bring a concern to the attention of the executive director, Mark Sklarow, in confidence that there will be a responsible follow up, and there always is.  The problem is that if Mark cannot work out the problem, and formal action needs to take place the formal complaint needs to occur before the Ethics Committee can become involved, and the person complaining must present compelling evidence along with the complaint.   We understand that there is a parallel situation at NATSAP.   

This situation is parallel to what would happen if our country operated with no police forces, other law enforcement bodies, or public prosecutors, but only criminal courts.  If a citizen were to observe a law being broken, it is up to that person to investigate, gather evidence, and present the matter to court.   Of course there is the availability of the kindly, sympathetic, and readily available executive who will hear your concerns and try to persuade the criminal not to be a criminal.  But we all know that does not always work. 

There is a way around this, that is more cumbersome, more time consuming, incorporating greater legal risks, probably more expensive and we think more effective.  This approach if pursued would bring membership of these groups much closer to 100% adherence to agreed upon standards.   That is to create a separate body from the ethics committee to actually hear and decide issues that come before it, while the ethics committee becomes more of an investigative body.  There are precedents for this. 

The largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has an approach along these lines.  Each area of the church (called a presbytery – similar to a diocese in some other churches) has a committee called “Committee on Ministry” with a number of functions that include supervision of clergy. If there are ethical breaches they are in a position to bring action to address the situation – as can any other person.  If a formal complaint occurs whether initiated by a Committee on Ministry or by a private individual, an ad hoc committee is convened to investigate the complaint – acting confidentially.  If that committee sees merit to the complaint, it brings the matter before a church tribunal, where the ad hoc investigating committee – not the person initiating the complaint – is responsible for gathering and presenting the evidence. 

In other words there are at least two and potentially three bodies involved: The Committee on Ministry which might initiate the complaint; the ad hoc investigating group which also becomes prosecutor if they find that the complaint has merit, and the adjudicatory tribunal.

If  Ethics Committees were to be assigned the task of investigating complaints, looking into situations their own members became aware of and communicate informally,  then gathering and presenting evidence to a different body that is impartial to judge the situation,  we believe that the compliance with the standards would be vastly enhanced.  We believe that this approach would close the gap between what is on paper in well written ethics statements, and what actually occurs, would be narrowed. 

We are aware of specific noncompliance in both NATSAP and IECA that are in addition to specific concerns reported on this website.   We don’t enter formal complaints where we lack evidence that we can present without breaking confidentiality and without risking a complex legal entanglement.  Like most people, we are reluctant to take on the role of prosecutor.  We believe the alleged standards of both NATSAP and IECA would be far more credible if these organizations would supply the investigative body and the prosecutor and not just the tribunal. But in fairness, we realize that compliance would still not likely be 100%.  We also realize that to do so would be a costly and difficult undertaking that very few organizations are willing to take on. 

We want to repeat for emphasis that we believe the present approach taken by both NATSAP and IECA are consistent with customary procedures in organizations of this type and we are not suggesting that the organizations themselves are corrupt in any way.  We believe the individuals directly involved in enforcement of these standards in both organizations do so with diligence and integrity.  We do not do not mean to suggest anything other than appreciation for the integrity, time, and effort expended by the individuals who serve on the relevant committees at NATSAP and IECA, and the administrative staffs of both organizations who do their best to keep order.  What we propose would make these organizations the exception.  But it is an exception we would encourage.

Feedback is invited. We will publish feedback in good taste. See our Rules for Submissions.  Email

Disclaimer: No  program review, no matter how positive, is a blanket endorsement. No criticism is a blanket condemnation.  When we express our level of confidence in a school or program, that is our subjective opinion with which others might reasonably disagree.  When we assert something as fact, we have done our best to be accurate, but we cannot guarantee that all of our information is accurate and up to date. When we address compliance with our guidelines, you need to remember that these are only OUR guidelines -- not guidelines from an official source.  We have also set the bar very high, and do not expect any school or program to be in total compliance.  It is not appropriate to draw a conclusion of impropriety (or even failure to live up to conventional wisdom) from our lack of confidence in a school or program or from less than perfect conformity to our guidelines.  Some will say we expect too much. Readers are responsible for verifying accuracy of information supplied here prior to acting upon it. We are not responsible for inaccuracies.

Last updated 4-12-2010


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