February 16, 2021

Nine Tips for Following Government Ethics Rules

By Christine Mica

This post is part of the Partnership’s Ready to Serve series. Ready to Serve is a centralized resource for people who aspire to serve in a presidential administration as a political appointee.

Serving at the pleasure of the president is a huge responsibility. You are there to represent the administration and to support and defend the Constitution. As a new government employee, you will never forget the feeling of taking the oath of office for the first time. Not only is it humbling, but it should remain at the forefront of your conscience when making all future decisions.

Strict rules apply to all federal employees and can be tough to navigate. The following nine tips will help you avoid any ethics problems.

1. Be sure to fill out your ethics paperwork completely and correctly the first time. If updates or corrections are needed, do them immediately.

2. Be sure you know about the Hatch Act and all pertinent executive orders, like those banning outside income and gifts, and those outlining when you need to recuse yourself from certain matters.

3. When in doubt about actions you in intend to take, ask your agency ethics office. The ethics officials are there to provide answers to your questions.

4. Submit a truthful timesheet. Taxpayers do not pay for a late arrival to work due to traffic or if you decide to meet friends for a two-hour lunch.

5. Be mindful of accepting travel invitations, especially those that have you speaking in your hometown or in a location seen as a resort.

6. Use your work phone and computer for business only. When you have forgotten a birthday gift or need to make dinner reservations, make sure to use your personal phone and computer.

7. When the office of general counsel asks questions and encourages caution, do not take it personally. General counsels are your agency’s lawyers and exist to ensure laws and policies are carried out properly. When the general counsel is happy, your job is much easier. Knowing your work does not present any legal risk to the agency or the White House is crucial. Plus, the office of general counsel can help provide advice and solutions to keep your agenda on track.

8. Do not try to go around the office of general counsel. They always find out! The consequences of hiding pertinent information can be worse than being up-front and direct.

9. Prioritize requests from the office of inspector general. Inspectors general are responsible for ensuring agency policy is followed, that financial resources are used correctly and that no one is breaking the law. Requests for information from an inspector general should become a priority. The Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton Public Sector published a report, “Walking the Line: Inspectors General Balancing Independence and Impact” that can guide appointees on how to work appropriately with this office.

There are many ethics rules, so there is a lot to learn. You are responsible for following all ethics policies. No excuses are allowed. Remember, mishaps are not only personal liabilities to your professional career, but are also embarrassing for your office, your agency and for the president.

Christine Mica is a former educator and university administrator who worked as a chief of staff in the Office of Postsecondary Education at the Department of Education from 2014 to 2016. Mica currently serves as the chief operating officer at the National District Attorneys Association.