Ethics @ Work: Takana’s lessons for good governance

Weakness is strength for society’s moral authorities.

Last week the Takana forum made headlines by publicizing alleged sexual misconduct and abuse by Rabbi Moti Elon, a leading figure in the national religious community. The committee occupies an important niche in ethical governance, a niche which is occupied by a few other institutions that have critical roles in maintaining the moral level of society.
The Takana forum is a group of leading educators which hears complaints about sexual harassment by authority figures within the religious Zionist community.  The forum hears complaints in a limited forum, makes sure the subject of the complaints is given the opportunity to present his point of view, and then makes recommendations. The committee has no formal standing, cannot compel anyone to come, and  cannot enforce any of its recommendations. However, the forum can make public statements, and experience shows that all those who have been summoned prefer to go through the process and not brave public exposure of the fact that they refused to comply.
From a governance point of view, what is interesting about this forum is that in effect it obtains its authority from its lack of authority. Any body which is invested with formal authority has to wield its authority with great care and provide protections for those being judged. The best example is the criminal justice system. The authority to put people in jail is necessarily accompanied by a broad range of protections, including limitations on admissible evidence, the right of representation, the right to see all evidence, the right of appeal, and a very high standard of proof – criminal conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
It’s clear that as a society we don’t want to sanction only those behaviors that are both defined as criminal and can also be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law subject also to giving the accused such broad protection. The solution is to create other institutions which necessarily lack formal authority.  This enables them to pass judgment on wrongs with a lower level of severity and/or with a lower level of certainty.
That doesn’t mean that such bodies shouldn’t be subject to any constraints, it just means that they have freer rein – commensurate with their more circumscribed influence.  At some level, public opinion dictates that the influence of such bodies will be commensurate with their credibility, and, since credibility is commensurate with careful judgment in research and reporting, the body’s influence is dependent on its wielding its power responsibly.
This is a point I have made in the past regarding the state comptroller. The comptroller has the ability to pass judgment on all kinds of mischief precisely because he has no authority to sanction those he criticizes.
The most prominent institution of all in this category is the press. The press condemns people all the time. They are subject to two kinds of constraints: journalistic ethics and the libel laws. In order to lose a libel judgment in common law you have to be shown to be false and malicious; in Israel the bar is a bit lower but lack of good faith is still a requirement.  Recognizing this important role the press has an important standing in court, and “the public’s right to know” is a valid consideration in the legal system of a free society.
The credibility of the Takana forum is partially due to the sterling reputation of its members, but that cannot be the only source. The forum exists precisely because the reputation of spiritual leaders and educators is no guarantee of good conduct. It would be easy to imagine a situation where the same public figure recently condemned by the forum would have been a member of it. The forum gains credibility through transparent procedures and a perceived record of concern and impartiality.
In order for a society to sanction misconduct that doesn’t reach thelevel of proven crimes, it is necessary to have institutions that cancondemn people for lesser wrongs. In order to maintain fairness towardthose accused of these wrongs, it is necessary for these institutionsnot to have too much formal authority. The comptroller, the press, andethics forums like Takana derive their authority from theircredibility. In this way, the desire to preserve their authoritycreates a constructive incentive to maintain credibility and a criticalpublic  interest is served.