Feds to have freedom for nonprofit service
Tuesday marked the end of a comment period on a proposed rule from the Office of Government Ethics that would lift a 15-year prohibition on federal workers acting as officers or directors in the nonprofit sector. Previously, unless granted a special waiver, government employees were barred from officially serving in any capacity involving fiduciary responsibilities that could conflict with their obligation to their agency.
"In an era when public-private partnerships are promoted as a positive way for government to achieve its objectives more efficiently, ethics officials find it difficult to explain and justify to agency employees why a waiver is required for official board services that have been determined by the agency to be proper," OGE wrote. "The potential for a real conflict of interest is too remote or inconsequential to affect the integrity of an employee's services under these circumstances."
Federal employees using official time for nonprofit business still will be subject to agency oversight, however. According to the proposed rule, agency officials should consider how the employee's service will further the organization's mission, whether employees are able and willing to serve in similar organizations and how these assignments impact the agency's workload. They also may limit workers' involvement in lobbying, fundraising, regulatory, investigational and representational activities. The exemption is not "intended to interfere with the discretion of agencies to assign duties and describe the limits of official assignments, including assignments that involve outside nonprofit organizations," according to OGE.
Obama administration officials have been pushing for the rule's repeal. In an August 2010 letter to OGE, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry wrote that the prohibition hurts the government's ability to recruit and hire scientists and professionals.
"Restrictions act as a barrier to employees achieving professional stature in their respective fields, which may discourage scientists and professionals from considering federal employment," Berry wrote. "Federal scientists and professionals are hampered in their ability to provide the best possible advice and service to their respective agencies."
In addition, an Office of Science and Technology Policy memo, issued in December 2010, called on agencies to "allow 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."
"Anything that increases the transparency of federal agencies, particularly on scientific and technical matters, is welcome," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Civil servants should be able to participate in civil society so long as it does not interfere with their public service."