Federal Sector Ethics, Have We All Missed the Boat?

The current leadership of MSPB appears not so committed to their oath of office as to advancing a particular political agenda, a union bias or a specific value system. I think a person writing me as well as many other Federal employees have misunderstood the very nature of ethics.

In response to a recent article I penned, I received the following email:

if you’re just trying to get a rise out of people, you succeeded, but if you’re trying to act like you actually know something, you failed. shame on you for crying “conflict of interest.” after all your years in this area of management advocacy (i read your bio), you should know better. say you wish the administration were republican; you’re entitled to your opinion. but your cry of “conflict of interest” is a shameless lie.

I thought the guy misunderstood the point of the article and, even so, was pretty personal in his attack (not uncommon), so I was eager to respond and fired off the following somewhat smartass reply:

conflict of interest

Definitions (2)

1. Situation that has the potential to undermine the impartiality of a person because of the possibility of a clash between the person’s self-interest and professional-interest or public-interest.

2. Situation where a party’s responsibility to a second-party limits its ability to discharge its responsibility to a third-party.

Source: Businessdictionary.com

I’m not trying to get a rise out of people.

I’m not trying to prove anything.

Perhaps a little objectivity on your part may reveal that the current leadership of MSPB appears not so committed to their oath of office as to advancing a particular political agenda, a union bias or a specific value system.  (See definition no. 2 above)

No one else that I have seen offers a critical view of these Agencies because their mission is less obvious to the public than, say, EPA or DoD.

If you don’t like what I write, why don’t you write a considered counter piece or is an ad hominem argument the best you have to offer?

ad ho·mi·nem


1.     appealing to one’s prejudices, emotions, or special interests rather than to one’s intellect or reason.

2.     attacking an opponent’s character rather than answering his argument.

Source: dictionary.com

So the commentor came back to me with:

Thank you for your reply.

“Conflict of interest” in the realm of the federal government has special connotations.  There are rules governing how soon and how close you can return to the work you did after you leave federal employment. These rules probably exist because it’s so common for people to be brought in to the government for their expertise in the area as civilians.  That said, as administrations turn over, appointees routinely have to find employment elsewhere, and you would expect them to return to what they know — as surely as you would expect presidents to appoint people who have experience in those areas.

What I read from the piece at FedSmith is an argument that nobody should trust the decision because (1) it helps unions and (2) two of the Board members are from unions.  But one could say the same when a Republican administration is in office and they issue a decision that helps management.  As long as there is a political system, this argument will be made.  And I have worked for both liberals and conservatives; I am not whetted to one side when I say this.

The piece at FedSmith invites the reader to confuse an ethical conflict of interest with normal politics and changes in policy.  Pointing out that a decision changes 30 years of law does not transform a disagreement in ideology and legal analysis into a “conflict of interest.”  Calling it a conflict of interest comes across as a nice soundbite to piss people off and stir them up, not to have a considered argument over the propriety of the decision.  Especially when I know you have a pro-management background, it seems funny to read you argue “bias” by the political appointees.  I too get offended by ad hominem attacks, but I feel like you did that in your article.

So What’s My Point?

I would like to go back to the definition of conflict of interest I sent my correspondent. It says:

“Situation where a party’s responsibility to a second-party limits its ability to discharge its responsibility to a third-party.”

I think the guy writing me and many other Feds have misunderstood the very nature of ethics.

The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) is a worthwhile effort to protect the people from corruption among public servants. But make no mistake, the use of the word ethics in the Agency’s name was convenient but, in the end, a tragic mistake. The guy who wrote me appears to think that ethics is following OGE’s rules or maybe Bar Association rules, if an attorney, but those rules have absolutely nothing to do with ethics.

Ethics is not some fixed set of rules announced in the Federal Register. To think that to be ethical is any different for a government employee or official than what any man or woman applies to themselves is a very convenient and monstrously self-serving hypocrisy. I believe that there are a cadre of people in Washington who move in and out of jobs bringing with them the idea that they are in office to serve the interests of those who appointed them as opposed to the people they serve. This has been true over time and involved both national political party appointees.

I’d like to believe that there are people out there who would put the interests of the country, in the best sense of it, before their own value systems for the greater good. In their term of office, they should balance alternatives and not merely bring with them a preset agenda reflecting a certain viewpoint. It may reflect the reasons the country seems so polarized in recent years and contribute to it as well.

I found some quotes that I would like to share from much better people than me on the concept of ethics. I hope the person who corresponded with me will consider them, not me, in judging the ethics of a situation.

First is Thomas Jefferson who many would agree is the ultimate government outsider. He said, “I consider ethics, as well as religion, as supplements to law in the government of man.”

Next is a modern writer, Albert Camus who said, “Integrity has no need of rules.”

Perhaps it takes a Russian to write something we, as Americans, should carefully consider. Alexander Solzhenitsyn  said, “Even the most rational approach to ethics is defenseless if there isn’t the will to do what is right.” This may be the most germane quote to the point I’m trying to make.

I even found a Brit that was a bigger smartass than me. George Bernard Shaw said, “The nations morals are like its teeth, the more decayed they are the more it hurts to touch them.”

The last was, in his later life, an American perhaps more by the chance of oppression than choice. Albert Einstein said, “to make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.” I think maybe he had read OGE’s regulations.

In the end, I hope it comes down to what the quote above says about whether you put your obligations to one individual or group over your responsibility to the community you serve as a public official. The argument that the last guy did it so I am justified too will likely bring us down no matter who the last guy was.

The above is my view but I hope it is shared by more than just a few.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.