Ahead of election, OGE finalizes ethics program overhaul

Just in time for the upcoming presidential transition, the Office of Government Ethics is revamping its executive branch ethics program — an overhaul that’s nearly 40 years in the making.

OGE published a final rule Nov. 2, which detail the program’s changes. New requirements go into effect Jan. 1, 2017.

“[The amendments] present a comprehensive picture of the executive branch ethics program, its responsibilities and its procedures as reflected through nearly 40 years of interpreting and implementing the Ethics in Government Act of 1978.”

The agency also consulted agency ethics officials, inspectors general, the Justice Department and the Office of Personnel Management as it crafted its initial proposal.

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Since agencies must act on the new requirements at the start of next year, many new appointees and seasoned agency ethics officers will a get a taste of the program’s changes during the presidential transition.

Specifically, new political appointees must receive individual ethics briefings within the first 15 days of their appointment, the rule said. Most new hires must receive formal ethics training within the first three months of employment.

“Every supervisor in the executive branch has a heightened personal responsibility for advancing government ethics,” the rule said. “It is imperative that supervisors serve as models of ethical behavior for subordinates.”

New appointees will also see notices of applicable government ethics rules in their offer letters, “so that every prospective new hire will have to make a conscious choice to either become a contributing part of an agency’s strong ethical culture or decline the job offer,” OGE Director Walter Shaub said in an overview of the new changes.

In addition, agencies are required now to replace informal ethics training with a formal program. They have more training requirements to meet throughout the year, which the final rule describes in detail with a specific timeline.

Human resources officers will also play a bigger role in government ethics. First, HR leads will be in charge of quickly telling designated agency ethics officers of new appointments and whether they’ll need to file financial disclosure reports. Individual agencies will also determine whether their HR offices should participate or lead other ethics-related activities and training, the rule said.

Other changes to the ethics program include:

  • Clear definitions of the program itself, as well as descriptions of ethics responsibilities for employees, supervisors, agency ethics officials, human resources staff, inspectors general, agency heads and employees at the Office of Government Ethics.
  • A requirement that agencies prepare their ethics programs for presidential transitions.
  • Requirements that agencies officially notify employees promoted to supervisory positions of any new applicable ethics laws.
  • The role that OGE plays in organizing quarterly meetings with designated agency ethics officials and in running the public financial disclosure system.

OGE made few changes from the proposed rule it published in July to the new version. Beyond technical changes, OGE did clarify the role that inspectors general play in investigating ethics violations and the process IGs should take to tell OGE about criminal referrals to the Justice Department.

Specifically, the agency worked with the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) to tweak the language.

“OGE sought neither to limit the independence of inspectors general nor to exclude them from this regulatory requirement,” the rule said. “OGE is, however, sensitive to general concerns about inspector general independence and had eliminated the reference to ‘agencies’ as a prophylactic measure to avoid creating any perception that inspectors general would need to act in concert with various agency offices when filing the required notifications.”

The public comment period on the proposed rule ended in August. One individual left comments, which were mostly technical, the final rule said.

The Office of Government Ethics plays a central role before, during and after presidential transitions, particularly in training agency ethics officers to understand the political nominee process and properly vet incoming appointees with a new  financial disclosures electronic filing system.

Agencies can expect to receive more guidance from OGE on implementing certain aspects of the rule in the future, the rule said.