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Patricia Harned

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Executive Branch Agencies Should Live by Their Own Standards

Posted: 05/09/2012 11:57 am

This week is Public Service Recognition Week: a time set aside "to honor the men and women who serve our nation as ... government employees and ensure that our government is the best in the world." For the majority of the four million hard working employees serving in the executive branch of the federal government, the accolades are well-deserved.

But just like any other organization, the reputation of a government agency can be tarnished by the actions of only a few. And lately, that has been the case. The irony has been striking; the federal agency tasked with ensuring the prevention of fraud, waste and abuse in government purchasing is now on the defensive for some outrageous spending itself. Meanwhile, the sordid activities of a few members of the "secret" service are now anything but secret.

So far these scandals have played out as they have in the past -- agency officials investigate, lawmakers posture, mid-level managers take the fall, cable TV pundits pontificate, and Americans shake their heads in disbelief. These incidents are always treated as isolated lapses and no one considers the larger matter -- how it is even possible that even a handful of federal employees think this kind of behavior is an acceptable representation of their employer? Especially when their employer is the United States government.

What's most amazing is that twenty years ago the federal government in the form of the US Sentencing Commission took steps to encourage organizations - including government agencies - to prevent and detect misconduct among their employees. Chapter Eight of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines established criteria for an effective ethics and compliance program, and the Commission gave incentives for organizations that have taken steps to implement them. While the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations (FSGO) were initially meant for use by federal judges at the time of sentencing, they have spawned an entire body of knowledge and field of practice among public and private sector organizations. Recently, the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) released research showing that when organizations follow the FSGO and implement effective ethics and compliance programs, not only do they build ethical cultures, they dramatically improve conduct in their organizations.

The FSGO apply to federal agencies; but presently executive branch organizations are not expected by the President to actually follow them. So they don't. To date, only one portion of an agency -- the FBI -- even comes close. And as the typical Washington blame game goes on to address the GSA and the Secret Service; it is getting in the way of actually solving the problem. What federal agencies need are values-based ethics programs, consistent with FSGO. Until that happens, we are not going to address the root cause of these outrageous incidents.

The ERC has released a report proposing a solution that will not end Washington, D.C. scandals, but it will improve our leaders' abilities in preventing and reducing these kinds of ethics lapses. A special advisory group (comprised by law enforcement officials, judges, prosecutors, academics, and compliance/ethics practitioners) convened in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Chapter Eight of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations has urged the President to call for the creation of values-based ethics programs in executive branch agencies. In essence, the report asks Washington to live up to the standards that the federal government currently applies to the private sector.

Some may say that the creation of such ethics programs is only necessary because federal employees cannot be trusted. In fact, the opposite is true. The creation of ethics programs in executive branch agencies will give employees who may feel unable to speak out about bad actors a chance to contain problems without creating public firestorms.

The feeding frenzy surrounding these types of scandals by federal employees will not go away. But in the midst of it, the President is faced with an historic opportunity -- the chance to raise the ethics standards for the executive branch. I can think of no better time than Public Service Recognition Week for our leaders to make a statement to their employees -- well-intended, hard-working federal employees deserve resources to help them work in ethical cultures where integrity is a priority.

Will you seize the opportunity, Mr. President?

Dr. Patricia J. Harned is President of the Ethics Resource Center, authors of the biennial National Business Ethics Survey® (NBES). You can find the latest NBES report at ethics.org/nbes.

 
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