I grew up in small-town Nebraska. An all-too-familiar scenario repeated itself year after year. My beloved Huskers would generally win most of their football games and then await the final showdown the day after Thanksgiving with Oklahoma. The winner of this Big Eight battle typically went to the Orange Bowl and had a good chance at a national title. The loser went to a lesser bowl.

All too often, Oklahoma came out on top. Indigestion and disappointment reigned. As a result, I grew up with a severe dislike for the Sooners, but on the other hand, I was also inclined to cheer for them on behalf of the conference reputation. So I knew the right thing to do on behalf of the Big Eight, but I didn’t want to do it. Yes, I was a disturbed child.

My disturbed childhood aside, what does a conflict of interest look like in the engineering world? I’m a member of the Iowa Engineering and Land Surveying Examining Board, and we see regular issues that arise related to conflicts of interest in engineering practice. This is an issue faced by all professionals, but I’ll attempt to specifically address the engineering and surveying world.

This is a critically important issue for all surveyors and engineers. It fundamentally does not matter if you are employed by consultants, clients or industry. Are you a licensed professional? If so, then it matters.

Sign-onewayAt issue is essentially a basic argument. On one hand, the engineering and surveying professions desire and encourage their members to become active in local, state and national initiatives. This is not unlike other professions. We desire for those in our profession to “give back” to others by running for office, and by serving on any number of relevant boards and commissions.

The other, and some say competing argument, is that members should not use these activities to unduly influence decisions that have potential impact on the members’ firms, or even on those of their competitor firms.

Conflicts of interest can take various forms. For example:

  • Your firm serves as a city engineer…and your firm somehow gets all the design work for that city.
  • You serve in a review role for an entity, and somehow your competitors feel like their applications are more strictly reviewed when compared to projects your firm is working on.
  • You are an elected official and you allow professionals to “host” you at significant golfing, hunting, fishing, concerts or athletic event.

You get the idea. Conflict of interest can be hard to define, but we usually know it when we see it!

State rules (regardless of the state and jurisdiction) typically require professionals to act in such a way as to protect the health, welfare and safety of the public. All state codes are developed to help ensure these goals.
In addition, professional organizations require acceptance and compliance with their respective Codes of Ethics. These provide very clear guidance on behavior related to professional practice and avoidance of conflicts of interest.

And finally, state and local laws address conflicts of interest by defining acceptable behavior and practice across a wide variety of organizations.

Iowa has had recent questions related to conflicts of interest, with the associated effort to revise and/or clarify the rules. A coalition of stakeholders met in an attempt to develop a set of rules that would reflect the following goals:

  • Encourage professional involvement in the public arena
  • Promulgate rules that do not create disadvantages for engineers and surveyors as compared to other professionals (i.e. attorneys, physicians, etc.)
  • Rely on existing rules and professional self-policing as much as possible
  • Provide rules that are clear and understandable
  • Ensure that rules align with existing laws
  • Encourage local control as much as possible

The resulting rule changes represented the thoughts of a broad group of stakeholders, and hopefully address the conflict of interest issue in a helpful way. Are there any perfect sets of rules for conflicts of interest? Certainly not. Yet, as professionals we should always be expected to “do the right thing” in our practice and activities.

There is certainly more that could be said about this topic, but I need to see who Oklahoma plays this weekend…they are no longer in the same conference, so I’m no longer conflicted.

About the author

Marlon is our account executive in the Power market. He has more than 35 years of experience with all aspects of planning, design and construction of 12.5 kV-345 kV distribution and transmission systems, including right-of-way, design, regulatory coordination, public information meetings, public testimony and project management. With an extensive background in power transmission and distribution, Marlon brings a wide variety of knowledge in discussing the energy industry and the issues it faces. From education of future engineers to critical infrastructure analysis, he offers a unique perspective on the industry and where it's headed.