Complex ethics environment pushes OGE to focus on basics

Listen to Jason Miller's interview with Walter Shaub.

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The STOCK Act. The revolving door of federal employees heading to industry. The reverse revolving door of former federal employees who went to industry now heading back to the government. These are the reasons why the Office of Government Ethics is being more aggressive in its training of federal employees.

Over the last year, OGE has seen an increase of 238 percent in the number of training courses and hours it has offered federal ethics officials as compared to the year before.

Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, said the federal ethics world has changed considerably over the last few years, and employees and ethics officials are requiring more help to understand how to meet the requirements.

Take the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, for example. Since Congress modified the law, there are many who don’t understand the new rules for federal executives reporting financial transactions.

“We collect periodic transaction reports as a result of that, which means every time somebody does a transaction, they now file a financial disclosure report instead of waiting until the end of the year. That gives us more real time information about their financial interests,” Shaub said in part 2 of his exclusive interview with Federal News Radio Tuesday at the National Government Ethics Summit in Washington. “We are looking more with financial disclosure for conflicts of interest. So stocks are typically an area; bonds, corporate bonds and municipal bonds, quite a range of financial assets would be covered.”

Shaub said federal executives must file with OGE shortly after the transaction, and that’s what its training focuses on, so the employees know the rules.

A growing number of rules and complexities

The STOCK Act is just one of several examples of how the government’s ethics rules have changed over the last few years.

The Obama administration has focused on the revolving door and reverse revolving door issues. Some government watchdogs say the administration hasn’t lived up to its ideals when it comes to the revolving door.

In 2013, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington got a hold of a Defense Department database that showed 84 percent of the senior officials requested ethics opinions as they moved from federal jobs to the private sector — of which most were looking at defense contractors.

The Project on Government Oversight said of the top DoD executives, 13 listed Lockheed Martin, 13 listed Northrop Grumman, 10 listed Raytheon and seven said Boeing were their potential employers.

Shaub said the revolving door issue is a big one for OGE. He said the government is doing a good job, but it still has to be watched and studied.

“I am very concerned about the revolving door. I feel it’s an important focus on our program,” he said. “There are a lot of systems in place with post- employment requirements. I don’t think we should let down our guard and do away with post-employment rules to prevent concerns about people thinking more about their next job than the job they have as they make government decisions.”

Shaub said there has to be a balance, because the government needs to hire people with expertise that may not be available without looking at the private sector.

“There are aspects of bringing in fresh perspectives and being able to recruit better, because people know they will not be prevented from having another job as long as we are carefully watching the risks and carefully making sure that government decision making is not influenced by what people hope to do next,” he said.

Shaub added the United States has one of the most rigorous ethics requirements in the world and those rules are created to protect the government’s interests.

Back to the basics

The STOCK Act, the focus on the revolving door and other ethics issues, and the complexity of meeting the requirements are why OGE is transforming too.

“I felt OGE really needed to get back to some of the basics on looking at the way it did things and finding ways to do them better,” he said. “I targeted the three big areas: communication, direct support to agency ethics officials and oversight. We’ve really tried to stay consistently on that theme since I started.”

Around communication, Shaub said OGE is using social media, blogs and a listserve, and most importantly, quarterly meetings with agency ethics officials to discuss challenges, concerns and OGE’s priorities.

“We’ve done three branch meetings where we bring together ethics officials from all three branches of government, and we’ve been facilitating the trade of training products,” Shaub said.

In the three branch meetings, OGE works with the legislative and judicial ethics offices to share best practices, discuss potential and real problems and coordinate implementation of policies and laws.

The second focus area of direct support to agencies, Shaub said OGE is focusing on one-on-one relationships between the desk officer and their customer agency.

“We’ve been sending them out to agencies to understand their work and build those relationships so they will call us with those difficult ethics questions,” he said. “That’s a shift from the way we’ve been doing it previously. We had previously done a call center where your call came in and it could go to a different person each time. I felt it was important to have the relationship so we could understand their work, and they have somebody they felt good about calling.”

OGE also is turning to technology to better support agency ethics reporting. The agency will launch an e-filing system for financial disclosure in the coming months.

“This system is going to be very advanced because it’s designed much like the popular tax filing software where it actually asks you questions and guides you through completing the form. So we think that will improve the accuracy of our systems,” Shaub said.

The third area of focus is around oversight where OGE launched a new type of program review, called inspections, where the agency assesses other’s programs.

“When I took over I’d been concerned I didn’t think OGE was looking at as many agencies as it could’ve been looking at and I wanted to get to more agencies without sacrificing quality and still doing it within our limited resources,” he said. “We came up with an approach called inspections where we still look at all the same things, but we are only looking at the results. We are looking to see if there is a problem with the ethics program. If we find no problem, we report on it and we usually still make some recommendations for improvement. If we do find significant problems, we can come back and do a more traditional plenary review where we not only look at the results, but look at the processes and procedures that lead to those results to see if we can find the structure root of the problem and help them root it out.”

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