GAO urges more transparency of political appointments, compliance with agency ethics programs

On a the heels of Sunshine Week, a new study from the Government Accountability Office points to a variety of examples where agencies could improve compliance w...

The Government Accountability Office is urging Congress to require more transparency of agencies in collecting and publishing information on political appointees in the executive branch.

A new GAO study describing agencies’ struggles to track political appointees and their compliance with ethics programs reads, in a sense, like a greatest hits album of typical challenges pestering many facets of government.

Agency data tracking the appointments and departures of political officials, for example, is inconsistent and scattered across multiple systems and organizations. And challenges in recruitment, retention and training have led to persistent vacancies at departmental ethics offices.

Elijah Cummings
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.)

“The public has an interest in knowing who is serving in the government and making policy decisions. The Office of Management and Budget stated that transparency promotes accountability by providing the public with information about what the government is doing,” GAO wrote. “Until the names of political appointees and their position, position type, agency or department name, start and end dates are publicly available at least quarterly, it will be difficult for the public to access comprehensive and reliable information.”

There isn’t a single data source on political appointees that is timely, accurate, comprehensive or available to the public, according to GAO, which reviewed executive branch ethics programs at the request of House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Permanent Subcommittee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.).

GAO released the report on the heels of Sunshine Week.

“No agency in the federal government was required to publicly report comprehensive and timely data on political appointees serving in the executive branch,” GAO said. “As the leader of human resources and personnel policy, OPM is positioned to collect, maintain, and make political appointee data publicly available on a frequent and recurring basis. However, OPM is limited in its ability to provide comprehensive data, in part because it does not regularly receive data from each agency that has political appointees.”

Though the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and House Oversight and Reform Committees publish OPM data on political appointees after most presidential elections known as the “Plum Book,” it only provides a snapshot in time of appointments and isn’t regularly updated.

OPM’s own data on political appointees is lacking and scattered across more than one system, GAO said. The White House Presidential Personnel Office keeps its own political appointee database that GAO said is likely more comprehensive than OPM’s information, but it isn’t publicly available.

Two non-profit organizations have also been tracking political appointments, including the Partnership for Public Service and ProPublica, but they mainly focus on Senate-confirmed positions.

GAO also attempted to review ethics programs at four different agencies, including the departments of Health and Human Services and Interior, Small Business Administration and the Executive Office of the President.

GAO contacted EOP back in February 2018 to solicit feedback about its ethics program, but as of March 2019, the Executive Office of the President hadn’t responded to GAO’s requests for information. GAO, therefore, couldn’t evaluate EOP’s ethics program.

HHS, Interior and SBA generally met basic guidelines for government ethics programs, and a majority of appointees at these agencies filed their financial disclosure forms and completed initial ethics training on time, GAO said.

In addition, most appointees had taken the government ethics pledge on or near their first day of office, though former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke didn’t take the pledge until 19 days after his starting day.

The President or a designee may grant an appointee a waiver of any one of the restrictions described in the ethics executive order. As of this month, 32 political appointees, not including White House appointees, had received limited waivers of the pledge, according to GAO.

GAO made a handful of recommendations to Interior and SBA to ensure they were meeting the reporting requirements associated with their ethics programs.

Nine Interior appointees and one HHS official, for example, hadn’t gotten their ethics pledges signed on time. SBA didn’t have written procedures for providing initial ethics training until GAO began its review.

The lawmakers who requested the GAO study blasted the agencies, particularly the White House for its failure to participate.

“Upholding basic ethical standards for our government should not be a partisan issue; it’s good, common sense policy that is necessary for a healthy democracy,” Carper said in a statement. “Sunshine is said to be the best disinfectant. It’s why now, perhaps more than ever, at a time when Americans’ trust in the federal government is at a historic low, shedding some light and conducting critical oversight on the ethical lapses revealed in this report will begin the important and much needed process of restoring trust in our government and those who serve in it.”

Hiring freeze stymied agency ethics offices

Meanwhile, the ethics offices within all three agencies faced some sort of human capital challenges.

HHS officials told GAO the 2017 governmentwide hiring freeze and workforce reduction plan impacted the agency’s ability to fill six vacancies within an ethics office of 32 full time employees — a 19 percent vacancy rate. As of last October, HHS said four people had agreed to tentative job offers at the agency’s ethics office.

The jobs themselves are difficult to fill.

“HHS ethics officials told us that applicants for ethics attorneys and specialist positions generally do not have a background in federal government ethics laws,” GAO said. “As a result, ethics division officials said that it must invest time and resources to train new hires, who attend and review [Office of Government Ethics] trainings, participate in monthly inter-agency ethics meetings and take HHS-specific ethics training.”

Recruitment has also been difficult at Interior’s ethics office, where the vacancy rate was at 29 percent.

Interior officials again cited the governmentwide hiring freeze, as well as an ongoing reorganization of ethics offices within the department’s individuals bureaus and subcomponents, as the main reasons for longstanding vacancies and workload challenges.

One ethics official at Interior was responsible for reviewing and certifying more than 300 public financial disclosure forms in 2017, according to GAO.

“The official was unable to balance proper and timely review of forms with other responsibilities that also included reviewing and certifying more than 800 confidential disclosure forms,” the GAO wrote.

Interior told GAO late last October it was working on a plan to have one full time ethics officer for every 500 employees.

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