Financial disclosure is a deserving target for the government’s digital transformation

Government agencies most at risk of ethics violations and conflicts of interest are usually reliant on paper-based processes

Now and then a matter comes along that serves as a timeless reminder that while the vast majority of us have good intentions, some humans are susceptible to corruption. A memo written by Earl E. Devaney to the Secretary of the Interior in 2008 about the so-called “Royalty in Kind” scandal is an illustrative example.

Devaney was an inspector general investigating allegations of corruption within a subagency then called the Minerals Management Service (MMS). His memo summarized a two-year-long investigation that interviewed 233 witnesses, reviewed 470,000 pages of documents, and cost the taxpayers $5.3 million to complete.

The investigation concluded that senior civil servants teamed up to steer two “lucrative” MMS contracts to a company founded by one of them. It also revealed a significant number of staffers “socialized with and received a wide array of gifts and gratuities from oil and gas companies” with whom the office “was conducting official business.”

As somber as those issues were, the problems went even deeper. “The single-most serious problem our investigations revealed is a pervasive culture of exclusivity, exempt from the rules that govern all other employees of the federal government,” wrote Devaney.

Some of those involved would be sentenced to jail time, but not everyone. To that end, the purpose of Devaney’s memo was to advise the secretary of the facts of the case. Those facts would help him decide what to do with those involved whose activity violated ethical rules but fell short of a criminal offense.

Agencies reliant on paper-based ethics processes are at risk

There’s a lot of money flowing through federal agencies which is one path to temptation. That’s why the government maintains ethics offices, whistleblower protection and IGs to help insulate itself against the human proclivity to do things in their self-interest with taxpayer money.

The question that remains is, with such checks in place, how do scandals like this still unfold?

As a lawyer previously employed with the Office of Personnel Management, and since then working with many departments and agencies to automate and improve their financial disclosure programs, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about conflicts of interest. My answer to that question is straightforward:

An IG investigation that costs that much money often means someone was distracted by time-consuming paperwork and manual processes and wasn’t able to pay sufficient attention to substantive conflict reviews.

In my assessment, the agencies most exposed to this risk are not just those who are still dependent on paper-based financial disclosure processes, but also those who merely digitize the forms in fillable, but still static, online forms (i.e. PDFs).

The top three challenges of paper and fillable form-based ethics reviews

I’ve worked with 39 different government agencies on financial disclosure. In the last six years, civil servants at those agencies have filed 559,242 financial disclosure forms. The data and my experience suggest that most problems with filings and ethics reviews can be tied to three key challenges:

Challenge 1. Getting agency employees to complete their disclosures fully and on time

Civil servants who are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest tend to be busy senior-ranking officials with truly important jobs. That often means they face competing priorities and have to set aside their agency’s mission-critical tasks to complete these forms. At a minimum, the ethics office and these filers need a tracking and notification process to make sure these employees are reminded to complete this important task on time.

More importantly, we need to make it very easy for the person filing a disclosure to complete the process efficiently. That means providing a system that focuses them on exactly what is required and nothing more. Tax preparation software-style interview wizards are a proven and modern way to achieve that end.

Challenge 2. The volume of filing inhibits the quality of reviews

An agency can hit all its deadlines and still easily miss details in the rush to get a large number of disclosures reviewed and approved. Even smaller agencies with fewer filers can still be overwhelmed because they have correspondingly smaller ethics teams.

A clear example is when the ethics office cannot distinguish between new disclosures and disclosures made the previous year. As a result, they wind up wasting time reviewing disclosures they already approved.

Modern best practices use online tools to address this volume challenge by “triaging” the forms when filed. This allows the ethics team to focus on its scarce resources where they are needed the most.

Challenge 3. Ensuring ethics reviews are accurately completed on deadline

Ensuring reviews are completed by the deadline is part and parcel of the previous bullet points – and it requires careful project management. During the financial disclosure period, the ethics office is extremely busy. Typically, a small team of lawyers, paralegals or compliance professionals are tasked with reviewing dozens, hundreds or even thousands (depending on the agency’s size) of documents on a deadline.

Therefore, modern best practice prescribes technology to help track disclosure forms at risk of missing the Office of Government Ethics’ regulatory 60-day review due date. This ensures reviewers and certifiers focus on older forms first to avoid any slipping past the review deadline. In addition, modern systems compile simple management metrics such as the number of forms pending review, in review, approved or sent back for remediation so program managers can spot bottlenecks and balance workloads.

Government ethics review processes are ripe for automation

The Office of Management and Budget has recently redoubled its effort to improve the digital experience of government resources like forms, websites and apps. While much of the emphasis centers on improving the front-office service these agencies deliver to citizens, the same principles apply to the back-office processes that support front-line service delivery. This is especially true of processes such as financial disclosure that take time from top managers engaged in important service delivery.

Moving ethics financial disclosure to modern, secure, cloud-based, best-in-breed technology isn’t merely a theoretical idea either. Agencies that have done this already range from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which has 11 filers, to the Federal Aviation Administration which has more than 16,000 employees who file annual financial disclosure forms.

It must be acknowledged that the vast majority of government employees are good citizens whose only interest is in doing their jobs to the best of their ability. Even so, some percentage of humans will remain corruptible, which means the integrity of government programs must always be guarded. Technology tools are essential to providing the required protection.

In these modern times, there simply isn’t a valid reason for ethics offices to be drowning in paperwork. We have within our grasp the tools to ensure ethics breaches like the Royalty in Kind matter never happen again.

John Martin is a lawyer employed by Intelliworx which provides FedRAMP-authorized workflow management software solutions to more than 30 federal government departments and agencies. He specializes in government ethics, conflicts of interest and financial disclosure and directly supports the ethics offices using FDonline.

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