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Akst: Humor on a statewide level

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A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Hey, why the long face?”

Good jokes explain themselves, but if you have to explain a joke, it failed (Google agrees with “about 52,000,000 results in 0.22 seconds”).

Nevertheless, I’m going to try to explain the following joke because you’re paying for it.

I’m referring to the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act (PA 93-0617). Each year, employees of Illinois state agencies must complete a mandatory, Internet-based ethics training program. The training takes about an hour.

See, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the politician who instituted this well-meaning but laughably ineffective, expensive, controversial, time-sucking program, is now in federal prison for unethical and illegal behavior.

Get it?

At Northern Illinois University, an email from VP Steve Cunningham (a guy I came to know and respect over the past year) reminding employees of our annual task arrived Tuesday.
It’s not Steve’s fault.

He’s following orders of the state’s Office of the Executive Inspector General, which together with the Executive Ethics Commission, oversees the program for about 175,000 “employees, appointees and officials of public entities under OEIG’s jurisdiction,” according to the OEIG website.

NIU employees have until 5 p.m. Nov. 14 to complete the training.

“There will be no extensions available,” his memo said.

Once logged on, employees read a series of hypothetical situations and choose the right thing to do. Situations cover the Gift Ban Act, political activities, using state equipment for personal gain, official misconduct and other misdeeds.

But in 2004, when the program was fully instituted, employees had to answer at least eight of 10 questions on a post-training exam or take both the training and quiz over again. Minimum standards for passing have dropped over time, which is tragicomic.

Here are other humorous tidbits of state-mandated ethics training:

• A Northwestern University journalism program initiative examined thousands of documents and concluded (published in January in The New York Times) that “elected officials at every level in Illinois – from the village board to the state legislature – can use their positions to benefit paying clients or even family members.”

That’s legal.

“Officials are permitted to work as lobbyists, and also to vote and otherwise act on matters that directly benefit their lobbying clients.”

Also legal, the study concluded.

• The online training portal uses stock photography (which I recognize from teaching graphic design). Does the state pay for those images? Couldn’t we shoot our own photos?

• I asked someone who completed training Tuesday how this year’s training compared with last year. “Weren’t they the same questions as last year?” she asked.

• Colleagues tape certificates of completion to office doors as if they had just published a new book.

• We joke about finding students to do the training for us while we grade papers. Nobody would ever know.

• The certificates of completion can be easily forged. True, the state’s computers might flag a problem – if anybody bothered to check.

• I’ve spent hours – unsuccessfully – trying to find out how much this program costs the state each year, so it’s a riddle as well as a joke.

In the end, though, the humor falls flat. Ethics training sounds good, and people should behave ethically, but making people spend an hour to supposedly certify they know right from wrong, at significant cost and hassle, when clearly unethical acts still occur in both the private and public sectors, just isn’t funny.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University.You can reach him at

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