Ethics: Rules vs. common sense?

Industry executives worry that heightened ethics sensitivity will stymie productive and necessary relations between government and industry

The Defense Department has a 136-page book about bad behavior, titled “Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure,” which delivers its message with a sense of humor.One entry’s title is “But, Judge, I didn’t get anything!”According to the entry, “An offshore safety inspector found much of the government’s equipment to be in need of repairs to meet safety standards. He then referred the business to his brother-in-law’s repair shop. The rig operators smelled a rat and called the FBI. They discovered that, in return for each referral, the brother-in-law was treating the inspector to an evening with a lady of dubious morals. The case was brought to trial. In his defense, the inspector claimed that he had not received a ‘thing of value’ in return for the referral. The judge didn’t buy it — and neither did his wife.”The encyclopedia, posted on DOD’s Standards of Conduct Office Web site, lists many instances of wrongdoing, ranging from bribery schemes to abusing a contractor’s time.With few exceptions, federal rules governing ethical conduct are straightforward and based on common sense. Most federal employees abide by government ethics rules and their agencies’ codes of conduct. The ethical cases listed in DOD’s encyclopedia involve only a fraction of the government workforce, and there’s no evidence of an epidemic of misconduct by federal employees.“People are minding their p’s and q’s a little better,” said Jan Witold Baran, a partner at law firm Wiley Rein.Federal officials say the ethics track record of federal employees is good.“In my 26 years, I’ve never known anyone personally to have problems with ethics,” said Joe Bond, who leads the Veterans Affairs Department’s program executive office for resource management. “We know what our roles are. That is not to say there haven’t been questions or concerns.” However, he added, “I don’t think lunch or dinner will sway my decision-making.”And officials who have left public service say the federal government is an ethical workplace.“The vast majority of employees go above and beyond to do the right thing,” said Kim Nelson, former chief information officer at the Environmental Protection Agency who is now executive director of e-government at Microsoft.However, rules for doing the right thing are not always straightforward. “Any issue you bring to two general counsel members will come back with six opinions,” Bond said.Some ethics rules are inconsistent from department to department because of ethics officials’ differing interpretations, Nelson said.President Bush spoke this month about the lack of consistency in the government’s ethics rules. After he signed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, Bush said government needs more consistent ethical standards. He said he was concerned about the effect the legislation would have on federal hiring.“I believe these increased restrictions would have a negative impact on recruitment and retention of federal employees,” Bush said, and he urged Congress to make the ethics rules more uniform and less confusing.Federal ethics officials say ethics regulations are usually clear enough. But Eric Rishel, attorney and adviser for DOD’s Standards of Conduct Office, said specific cases often require legal interpretations of those regulations.Because different interpretations are possible, some current and former federal officials say employees’ best resource when trying to toe the line is their agency’s ethics officer.“The main point is, if you don’t know, ask questions instead of just assuming you’re right,” Bond said.Some industry groups find federal employees are concerned about any ethical violation and even wary of attending conferences with industry executives and government contractors. But that sensitivity varies. For example, employees at one department might be less concerned about conferences than those at another because of differing departmental policies.Nelson said a regulatory agency, such as EPA, must interact differently with industry than a nonregulatory agency would. That difference, at times, “leaves people scratching their heads a little bit,” she said.Industry executives and industry association officials say they sense a heightened awareness of ethics. “Ethics is a pendulum,” said Ken Allen, executive director of the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT/IAC). The pendulum is swinging toward greater concern, as inspectors general, the Government Accountability Office and the new Congress emphasize agency oversight, he said.High-profile cases of misconduct, such as the one involving David Safavian, former procurement policy administrator who was convicted of corruption charges in 2006, caught employees’ attention. They want to avoid getting involved in scandal, Allen said, adding that exceptional cases, such as Safavian’s, are the ones oversight officials use to set the rules for everyone else.The change in attitudes among government employees since the Safavian case is noticeable, industry representatives say. If there’s a hint of controversy about attending an event, federal employees simply opt out.ACT/IAC hosts the annual Executive Leadership Conference. In 2006, about 900 people attended, according to the organization’s Web site. Many agencies gave employees permission to attend the event.However, the Homeland Security Department wouldn’t allow attendance and kept a number of people away from the conference.“The question is, ‘Do you want it [your misstep] to show up on the front page of the newspaper?’ ’’ Nelson said.Allen said heightened ethical concerns have strained the partnership between industry and government, whom, he added, should be working together and not at cross-purposes. Under clear ethics rules, industry and government can share their information, collaborate on important projects and find better ways of doing business, he said. However, not all ethics rules are black and white. “There are a lot of gray areas,” he said.Industry groups working with government agencies say they look over their shoulders more often now than they did in the past because even the appearance of impropriety can have seriousconsequences.When industry groups invite federal officials to speak, for example, they often give the official a thank-you gift. Speakers often will open the gift on stage. Some feds with a sense of humor explain their action by saying they want to make sure the gift costs less than the allowed dollar threshold.Meanwhile, some agencies confiscate all gifts. “When I was with the Air Force, everything we got from speaking or from a vendor had to be turned into the ethics office,” Bond said.Ethics rules can leave everyone a bit nervous. Industry executives often are as nervous as government officials.“We wouldn’t allow them to have a cup of coffee, but we could point them in the right direction for Starbucks,” said Larry Allen, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, which hosts numerous breakfast meetings and conferences each year.Allen said companies want to know the rules so they don’t get in trouble, as some have. One company new to government contracting hosted a government-only cocktail party. Experienced contractors later told the company’s executives about the do’s and don’ts of government ethics rules — and the consequences of violating them.“Their award would have been three to five [years] in Leavenworth,” Allen said, referring to the high-security federal penitentiary in Kansas.Maintaining proper relationships between contractors and agency officials is one of the challenges of government, which savvy feds learn to master — for the most part.“The only area that is fuzzy is when you know someone personally outside the office,” Bond said. “Even if you have nothing to do with them professionally but they work for a contractor, it can introduce difficulties.”When Nelson worked at EPA, she was once in a similar predicament.A woman who was with a senior citizens’ group worked part-time in the agency’s small Office of Environmental Information. The woman quickly became friends with the 15 other federal employees working there. The holiday season arrived, but under EPA’s ethics rules, the part-time worker was not allowed to attend the office party. The rules put Nelson in a difficult spot: Invite the part-time employee, or exclude her from the office party.Nelson said she invited her.

Take the ethics quiz No. 1

The Defense Department’s Standards of Conduct Office asks
employees to respond to a variety of interactive scenarios as part of an ethics training course. Here is one of them.

You are a structural engineer and your job includes making recommendations concerning the building standards your agency adopts. You are well respected in your field and have been asked to run for a board position with a professional association, National Architects for Industrial Legos (NAIL). The position is unpaid and the board meetings are held in the evenings. NAIL adopts and publishes model building standards for various building structures, soliciting input from the public and private sectors. Its standards are voluntary, but many states adopt them. You and your colleagues regularly attend NAIL’s public meetings, which provide information on the latest building technologies.

QUESTION: If elected, may you hold a board position with NAIL in your private capacity after-hours?

1. Yes, this is a voluntary position where the board meetings are held in the evenings when they would not interfere with your official duties.

2. Yes, you and your colleagues have been attending the public informational meetings for years. Your agency has also submitted comments in response to NAIL’s requests for comments on their proposed model standards. This is just another facet of those meetings and an opportunity to gain more insight into its model standards.

3. No, NAIL is adopting building standards, and it’s your job to make recommendations on your agency’s building standards for the future.

ANSWER: 3. This offer of an outside position, with the duties it entails, raises a conflict of interest that does not exist if you and your colleagues merely attend informational meetings on building standards, building techniques and other related topics. Nor does the conflict of interest exist if, on behalf of your agency, you submit comments to NAIL on proposed building standards.

Source: Defense Department

Take the ethics quiz No. 2

Many agencies ask employees to take online interactive ethics training courses. The question below appears in a training course from the Defense Department’s Standards of Conduct Office. The scenario involves a federal office holiday party and a contracting company, IT GEEKS.

The party committee decides to hold the event in the office on a Friday during working hours from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Everyone, including the office’s five IT GEEKS employees, are invited. The committee also decides that everyone who comes will be charged $12 for refreshments.

QUESTION: May the IT GEEKS attend the party and contribute to the
refreshments?


1. No. The ethics rules prohibit contractors and federal personnel from interacting socially.

2. Yes, because the contractors are part of a team, and they will pay for their share of the expenses. A big reason for the party is to promote the one-team concept for the entire office.

3. Yes, provided their supervisor authorizes them to attend and their time at the office party is not charged to the government under the contract. The refreshment charge is not considered a gift.

ANSWER: 3. Contractor employees may attend the office party if authorized by their employers, not a government employee. The time they spend at the office holiday party may not be charged to the government as part of the contract. DOD recommends that such questions be coordinated with the contracting officer.

Source: Defense Department















“Any issue you bring to two general counsel members will come back with six opinions.” Joe Bond, Veterans Affairs Department









“We wouldn’t allow them
to have a cup of coffee, but we could point them in the right direction for Starbucks.”

Larry Allen, Coalition for Government Procurement












Sensitivity to ethics



















Don’t take too much























X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.