Barrier Between Public Service and Nonprofits Falling
Ethics Rule Restricting Federal Employees from Nonprofit Boards Set for Repeal
Washington, DC — A fifteen-year old rule generally barring federal employees from serving as officers or directors of nonprofit organizations will soon be rescinded. This change may result in much greater involvement by federal specialists in the nonprofit sector, especially within scientific, legal and other professional societies, according to public comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has decided that the broad prohibition against federal employees serving in their official capacities as officers or directors in nonprofit organizations should be removed from the regulations implementing criminal conflict of interest law. OGE stated that “the potential for a real conflict of interest is too remote or inconsequential to affect the integrity of an employee’s service,” according to the Federal Register notice announcing the proposed change. The public comment period on the proposal closes today.
Federal employees will still need permission from their agencies to spend official time and resources in nonprofit work. Each federal department will have to decide if service in a scientific or other professional society is “consistent with the needs and interests of the agency,” in the words of OGE. Previously, an employee could serve in a nonprofit only with a special waiver, which agencies are reluctant to grant.
“Hopefully, what was the exception will now become the rule,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that some agencies even outlawed serving on the board of homeowners associations. “Civil servants should be able to participate in civil society so long as it does not interfere with their public service.”
OGE had asked Congress to amend the conflict statute back in 2006 but that effort went nowhere. Two recent developments gave it new life. In August 2010, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry wrote OGE to urge the change on the basis that the current “restrictions act as a barrier to employees achieving professional stature in their respective fields.” Then, in December 2010, the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy issued guidance for the Obama scientific integrity initiative urging agencies to develop rules allowing “full participation in professional or scholarly societies, committees, task forces and other specialized societies, including removing barriers for serving as officers or on governing boards of such societies.”
Although the impetus for the change came from scientific societies, this new conflict exemption will apply to all nonprofits in every field. Whether on official or personal time, federal employees still are subject to limitations on their roles in nonprofit fundraising, lobbying and litigation. In addition, disclosure of previously nonpublic information to professional society colleagues could raise thorny issues.
“Professional collaboration with outsiders often deters political manipulation and improves the quality of the final product. Anything that increases the transparency of federal agencies, particularly on scientific and technical matters, is welcome,” Ruch added, while conceding that agencies will undoubtedly remain averse to letting their specialists work with outsiders on any controversial subject. “I doubt we will see any federal employees reporting for duty at PEER.”