January 7, 2014
by Walter M. Shaub, Jr.
One year ago, I was sworn in as Director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE). I had previously explained during my Senate confirmation hearing that I viewed OGE as a “small agency with the big mission of making sure the public can have confidence in the government’s impartiality.” When I took the oath of office on January 9, 2013, I accepted the position with a sense of reverence for the values underlying the legal framework for ethics in the executive branch and with a sense of determination that OGE could do even more to advance its important mission. Looking back a year later, I am proud of the work that OGE accomplished in 2013. OGE’s staff reached for nothing less than excellence in their work, and the ethics program is thriving. OGE submitted its Performance Accountability Report for fiscal year 2013 to Congress last month, and you can read the full report for the details of OGE’s performance. In this “Director’s Note,” I want to share with you just a few highlights from 2013.
Supporting agency ethics programs
The executive branch ethics program is a decentralized program comprising approximately 5,600 ethics officials in more than 130 agencies. These agency ethics officials, who are the government’s front line in preventing conflicts of interest, depend on OGE when they need answers to complex ethics questions. To support them, OGE’s Agency Assistance Branch (AAB) maintains a trained staff of Desk Officers to take their calls. In fiscal year 2013 alone, AAB’s Desk Officers responded to nearly 2,000 requests for guidance from agency ethics officials. OGE’s attorneys responded directly to another 700 requests.
A measure of OGE’s success is that four out of five agency ethics officials reported that calling OGE helped them to perform their work. Despite this success, one of my primary goals as Director is to foster a culture of continuous learning at OGE that enhances the skills and effectiveness of its Desk Officers and attorneys. To that end, I directed OGE’s education team in 2013 to develop a rigorous internal training program that commits OGE to delivering a new level of excellence in its support to agencies. The team piloted several approaches to internal training, emphasizing the importance of qualitative improvement in areas key to OGE’s success. In the next employee performance cycle, OGE will also formally incorporate the acquisition of new skills as an element in the performance standards for its Desk Officers and attorneys.
Ensuring that new Presidential appointees are free of conflicts of interest
Another of OGE’s important functions is to support the President of the United States and the U.S. Senate with regard to Presidential nominees for Senate-confirmed positions. If confirmed, these nominees will be the most senior leaders in the executive branch, with the greatest need to resolve conflicts of interest. For this reason, OGE invests considerable resources in reviewing nominees’ financial disclosures and negotiating ethics agreements to resolve all potential conflicts of interests in advance. As a rule, the volume of nominees requiring OGE’s review increases significantly in the year immediately following a Presidential election – and 2013 was no exception to this rule. In fiscal year 2013, OGE’s volume increased by 68 percent over its volume in 2012, and OGE’s hardworking financial disclosure staff rose to the challenge. They diligently upheld the highest standards for ethics and met the demand for prompt resolution of conflicts of interest.
Providing for the professional development of agency ethics officials
OGE was diligent in finding creative ways to bring quality training to the ethics community in 2013. OGE launched an exciting new resource, the Institute for Ethics in Government, on the MAX.gov government-wide extranet community. The IEG is the new home for all of OGE’s education offerings and makes learning opportunities available to all executive branch ethics officials, regardless of geography, experience or grade. I am happy to report that the ethics community responded positively to OGE’s course offerings. Notably, agency ethics officials registered for 4,249 slots in OGE’s courses in fiscal year 2013, which is more than three times the number in 2012. Agency ethics officials consistently rated OGE’s training highly in 2013, with 97% of participants in distance learning events and 95% of participants in classroom training events reporting that they were better able to do their jobs after attending.
Overseeing agency ethics programs
A key component of OGE’s oversight of the executive branch ethics program is its review of individual agency ethics programs. The National Academy of Public Administration explained in a 2013 report that, “OGE’s Agency Program Reviews are a substantial reason why the governmentwide [ethics] program is as effective as it is.” In fiscal year 2013, OGE completed reviews or follow-up monitoring activities for 35 executive branch agencies. Of those agencies reviewed, 91% reported that OGE’s program review process added value to their ethics programs. In the coming years, I would like OGE’s selection of agencies for program reviews to be based increasingly on data-based assessments of risk. For that reason, in 2013 I directed OGE’s Compliance Division to develop procedures to supplement OGE’s plenary reviews of agency programs with additional onsite data collection. OGE previewed what we are calling the “inspection” methodology in three meetings with agency ethics officials in August 2013 and November 2013. In January 2014, OGE will formally announce the inspection methodology in a program advisory that will be available on this website. Through this new methodology, OGE will gather data from selected agencies in order to identify programmatic risks potentially warranting plenary reviews and to increase the frequency of OGE’s onsite presence at agency facilities.
Like other federal agencies, OGE periodically refocuses its vision to address the challenges ahead. In 2013, OGE collaborated with stakeholders both inside and outside the government to develop a new strategy for sustaining and strengthening the executive branch ethics program. The product of this collaboration is OGE’s Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2014 through 2018, which draws on both the wisdom of OGE’s past experiences and the benefits of fresh perspectives. OGE will release the new Strategic Plan on this website next month.
Happy New Year!